Captain Phillips (2013)

Untitled-1Captain Phillips has the title of a movie whose eponymous hero sounds like a self-obsessed jerk. Indeed, many of his real life crew members have accused him of being reckless and selfish. How much of this is true, I don’t know, and I’m not here to bother. I’m here to bother about Captain Phillips the movie. So yes, a movie named after one man is either misinformed, or a biopic, and since this movie is neither, I found its title to be rather intriguing.

By the time the movie ended though, I was convinced that Captain Phillips was the perfect name. Writer Billy Ray could have called it “Adrift At Sea”, or “Those Bad Pirates”, or “Somalia FTW!”, but at the heart of this movie — not biopic, not documentary — is irrevocably, unequivocally Captain Richard Phillips. Played by Tom Hanks as a stern, cautious, but all too human American average joe in charge of piloting a massive cargo vessel across the dangerous waters of East Africa, Phillips is chucked a situation in which his chances of survival are about as slim as Barkhad Abdi’s arms. He is taken hostage by Somalian pirates, told that everything will be alright once they get their ten million, and is subjected to a gruelling 24 hours or so aboard his vessel’s lifeboat where he may or may not get shot in the head. How he doesn’t succumb to fear or make a mess in his pants is a miracle.

These events did happen in 2009. Phillips was in fact the captain of Maersk Alabama, en route to Mombasa from Oman, and his ship was in fact attacked by a group of pirates from Somalia, who we see in early scenes as desperate gunmen trying to get a job in order to please their boss (who is cleverly never fully revealed). And Phillips did in fact come out alive. This is all I’m interested in. I just want the basic facts to chew on, and then I’m happy to leave the rest up to Hollywood. Usually, leaving plot details up to Hollywood to flesh out is a move riskier than sacrificing your queen, but for maybe the second time this year Hollywood delivers a movie that is glorious beyond description.

I’m gonna go ahead and say that Captain Phillips is not as good as Gravity. It doesn’t have the same kind of uplifting music, and it uses more characters to facilitate its story (Gravity, for the most part, uses one). This isn’t a weakness, but Gravity wins out because getting one character to carry a story is tougher than a cast of many, and four pirates. Captain Phillips is also not as tight, taking a good 45 minutes more to fully resolve its conflict, and it doesn’t carry an underlying message. But does it come close to Gravity? Possibly. Both movies plunge their characters into situations that are not easy to get out of — Hanks is adrift in the middle of the ocean with four men carrying AK-47s; Bullock is adrift in the middle of space with very little to grab on to (doesn’t sound very perilous, but when you consider the limitations of space, it is). Both movies also take their audiences on thrill rides. Neither has a plot to speak of, but they make up for it with hazardous scenarios that are maximised to “Danger! Danger!” through sharp editing and close attention to sound design. Our hearts never stop racing.

Consider the scene in which Phillips spots two blips on the radar, fast approaching the rear end of his vessel. He has just issued a drill to his crew — being the cautious captain that he is, and completely aware that the waters he traverses are infested with pirates — and now the bloody thing is happening for real. Or at least he is expecting it to. “I don’t like the look of that”, he says to his first officer (Michael Chernus), pointing at the blips. He walks out onto the observation deck and peers through his binoculars. There they are. Two skiffs. Fast approaching. The men on board have guns. What now? Director Paul Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse have a field day with this sequence. The cuts are not exceptionally fast, but they are paced to increase tension. We know the pirates will board, otherwise there’d be no movie, but when do they do it? And how? The fear of this scene lies in Phillips’ expectations of the hijacking. He knows it’s going to happen. We know it’s going to happen. We can all see it. The ship is not taken by surprise; it’s taken in broad daylight, in full view of the people who are about to become victims. Watching approaching terror is scarier than having it shock you into submission. Think about the victims of 9/11, the ones who were on the floors of impact. Imagine being in any of their shoes. You can see the plane approaching your office window. It’s not slowing down, it’s not turning away. It’s coming right for you. What is there to do? Run down the stairs? Take the lift? There’s no time. Your fate is looking you in the eye.

It is the same with Phillips. Throughout the entire movie, his fate stares him in the eye. Mercilessly. Tirelessly. His captors each have a distinctive feature: One’s just a kid, and his badly injured feet become a peace offering between he and the captain, another’s a raving lunatic (Faysal Ahmed), the third’s a calm and collected leader (Barkhad Abdi), and the last is, well, just the driver. But each of them is dangerous enough to put a bullet in his head. And he knows this. How he stays resilient for so long is a mystery. If I was on the verge of collapsing here, what more for him?

Like Gravity, Captain Phillips moved me in all sorts of places. It got me excited. It made me nervous. It made me cry. It made me care. I’m not concerned if it’s historically inaccurate. Why should I be? Here is a fabulous movie that works as a movie, and as a lover of movies, what more can I ask for?

Best Moment | Oh, all of it. The climax in particular is literally breathtaking.

Worst Moment | Nope.

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