Movie review: Captain Phillips

Typically I’m not a fan of shaky cam – that rapid-cutting, all-over-the-place cinematography style designed to visually convey characters’ fragmented, subjective experience during adrenalin-charged moments. Its use ruined Quantum of Solace for me, turning the action scenes into a migraine-inducing, incoherent mess. Still, I’m the first to admit that if any director knows how to use this “realistic” visual treatment to maximum effect in generating tension and engrossing the viewer, it’s Paul Greengrass.

The man responsible for United 93, as well as the second and third Jason Bourne movies, does it again with Captain Phillips, easily one of the most consistently gripping films of 2013 – and a current Oscar nominee in six categories, including Best Picture.

Captain Phillips is based on a true story, the not-so-long-ago 2009 boarding of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks plays the title character, an ordinary family man whose obsession with procedure, quick thinking and calm under pressure end up making all the difference. And this when he and his crew continually have assault rifles pointed at their heads.

It’s a wonderful performance by Hanks, who radiates a kind of paternal “we don’t want no trouble” level-headedness for most of the film – and then completely flips this image with one of the most credible, agonising depictions of late-onset shock ever captured on screen.

Captain Phillips is pretty much a two-man show though, and holding his own impressively alongside two-time Oscar winning Hanks is complete newcomer Barkhad Abdi as the head of the pirate band.

It would have been easy to caricature or demonise the Somalis but in keeping with Greengrass’s more realistic approach, the pirates are presented as men trapped by circumstance. They’re capable of brutality but they don’t necessarily want to resort to violence. Abdi’s Abduwali is a skinny, dopey-looking man, who is routinely mocked by his colleagues and has something to prove. He’s utterly believable, and very much deserving of his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

If there’s any gripe to be made about Captain Phillips – and I think it’s more of a personal expectation thing in this case – it’s that I wish more time was spent on the container ship than the highly confined life raft. I was much more interested in the efforts of the crew to outwit and overpower the pirates than the appearance of the US Navy to set the situation right.

Still, at the end of the day there’s no denying that Captain Phillips is a thriller done right: edge-of-your-seat gripping but still marvellously entertaining without the need to resort to extreme Hollywood embellishment to make an already incredible true story more “cinematic”. Highly recommended.

4 stars out of 5.


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