Anyone looking for a nice and relaxing trip to the movies should steer clear of “Captain Phillips” at all costs. This film is as exhausting as, well, being taken hostage in the best way imaginable.
Tom Hanks stars as Captain Richard Phillips in this nerve-wracking drama based on the well-publicized hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in April 2009. The movie harnesses the intensity of this four-day hostage situation and compresses it into an adrenalized 134 minutes, creating an experience that places audiences in the pirate-infested waters off the African coast from the moment the film begins.
However, Hanks’ performance is pure smooth sailing, as he utilizes everything in his acting arsenal to portray Phillips, a portrayal that was even praised by the real Captain Phillips who was on set during the film’s production. But nothing can be said about Hanks’ acting that hasn’t been said before. Watching him play Phillips is like watching Peyton Manning throw a football – talent like this cannot be taught.
However, what can be said are these two words: Barkhad Abdi. As the pirate ringleader Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, Abdi absolutely steals the show. Supporting actor Oscar Buzz has been surrounding him since audiences caught a brief glimpse of the Somali-born actor in the film’s trailer, and this performance lives up to the hype. In his debut, Abdi captures a chilling sense of brooding desperation that sends shivers up the spine whenever he steps into the frame. Muse seems capable of doing anything at any moment; a ruthless pirate who will take a life without a second thought. Abdi’s performance is brilliant in its authenticity and could go down as one of the best debut performances ever. He is simply terrifying.
As much as Captain Phillips is one man’s story of survival, it is very much a tale of two captains and the role of one’s commitment to duty when taking a position of leadership. The film opens with a series of juxtaposing scenes depicting how each captain, Phillips and Muse, prepares for his respective journey. While Phillips expresses to his wife his worries about his son doing well in school while driving to the airport, Muse is threatened by a local warlord’s bandits, and is told he must capture more ships or people in his village will be killed. While Phillips cracks down on a few slackers in his crew taking an extra five minutes on their coffee break, Muse must select three men to take with him on his raid from a crowd of dozens, all malnourished and desperate to earn any money at all. Director Paul Greengrass does a fantastic job of illustrating the wide gap between the first and third world problems, and forces audiences to understand that this isn’t a story of pirates capturing innocent people, but a story of people doing what they must to survive.
Shot in the same documentarian-style that earned him praise in “United 93,” Greengrass’ creative use of tight shots to create a more cramped and visceral experience provides audiences with the feeling of actually being in the hostage situation. This technique gets great results during the latter portion of the film, during which Phillips and his captors are packed into a small, covered lifeboat with no ventilation. Every shot is a close up, allowing even the subtlest facial expressions of the talented cast to convey the tension of the environment. This makes for a claustrophobic viewing experience, which despite being uncomfortable at times makes it impossible for the viewer’s mind to wander.
There is never a moment in this film during which viewers will become aware they are watching a movie. “Captain Phillips” is entirely gripping and is as much a simulation as it is a recounting of true events.
RECOMMENDED: Hanks and Abdi’s towering performances are more than enough to see this taut dramatic thriller.