“Captain Phillips” Movie Review

     Director Paul Greengrass has made a habit of delivering pulse pounding action films with both a frenetic style as well as the substance necessary to elevate these films to the upper echelon of awards hopefuls.  He continually topped himself while helming “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” and demonstrated true mastery of his craft with the tragic 9/11 film “United 93”.  His latest film is “Captain Phillips”, starring Tom Hanks, a sure fire Oscar contender that will undoubtedly catapult Greengrass to the top of the A list with it’s life like portrayal of the real life Captain’s ordeal when he was kidnapped by Somali Pirates in 2009.  The events of the picture were well documented by news outlets at the time, so many viewers will likely remember the details, as well as the outcome.  In some ways this may leave some thinking the film will be similar to knowing the ending of “Titanic” before they entered the theater, but like that film, “Captain Phillips” is anchored by an Oscar worthy performance by it’s lead and the realistic vision of it’s director.

     Working from a screenplay by Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”) and adapted from Richard Phillips book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea”, Greengrass opens the film with an interesting comparison meant to shed light on the differences between what is taken for granted in the United States and what can only be dreamed about in less fortunate countries.  While driving to the airport, Phillips (Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) are talking about their kids and how they worry if they will be able to get a job and someday make a living in much the same way they have.  They cite the fact the world is significantly more competitive then it was when they were young and just starting out and how fifty people typically compete for one job.  Generally speaking, they are conveying to one another how difficult life may become for the up and coming generations.

     Greengrass then shifts the location to a small village in Somalia where it’s inhabitants live below any acceptable poverty line, sleeping in mud huts and likely most concerned about when they might get their next meal.  When a local crime lord arrives and is looking for men to participate in a series of boat thefts, dozens volunteer, most appearing to be in their late teens and each armed with assault rifles.  Once they are chosen, the groups set out to sea in run down fishing boats, looking for their next victim and a potential payday.  This framework sets up the standard “haves” versus “have nots” scenario with a group of pirates whose desperation means they are willing to risk anything to succeed.  The Somalis are played by a group of non actors who answered a casting call and were hired with no formal experience.  Each does a fine job, led by Barkhad Abdi, who plays the groups’s leader, Muse.

     Phillips is the Captain of a large cargo ship traveling dangerously close to Somali waters.  When Phillips and his crew spot one of these suspicious fishing boats on their tail, they call for help but are largely ignored.  Ingenuity saves them the first time, but these Pirates are persistent and ultimately are able to board the ship with relative ease, as the ship’s personnel are simply not trained or prepared to deal with AK-47 toting Pirates.  Phillips and his bridge crew are taken hostage in a series of intense scenes in which a virtually defenseless crew succumbs to the armed Pirates who’s intent is to rob the ship of it’s valuables. 

     When a group of hidden crew members are able to thwart Muse’s plan to search the ship, the Pirates react by taking Phillips hostage and escape the ship via a high tech life boat.  This sets in motion the third act which leaves Phillips trapped in the small craft with his  four captors and the Navy in pursuit.  Greengrass stages the various attempts at negotiation and rescue with all of the epic skill you would expect from a massive production like this.  These sequences are part military procedural mixed with the harsh realities of what these Pirates are willing to do in order to get their money.  Essentially what you have is hostage/barricade situation that is dealt with on nearly a daily basis by law enforcement agencies everywhere, only rather than the structure being on land, it’s in the middle of hostile waters.  The procedures are the same as the decision makers follow a series of common hostage negotiation tactics before opting to use any kind of force.  The resulting outcome is already known, but the scenes leading up to the final solution are fiercely intense and well acted by all involved, especially Hanks.  The SEAL team that puts an end to the situation does so with the razor sharp precision one would expect given their worldwide reputation.

     Once Phillips is retrieved, a scene in a Navy ship’s infirmary was shot to convey the aftermath of a rescued victim who has endured a grueling hostage situation and the steps the medical staff take to calm and treat the victim.  This scene very well could decide this year’s Best Actor race as Hanks delivers the most harrowing depiction of a person suffering from shock that you will ever see in a film.  Hanks delivers a virtuoso performance throughout, but he really nails this scene and brings to frightening conclusion a realistic portrayal of one of the most talked about news stories in our recent history. GRADE: A