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Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 12:01 am

Phillips, gripping tale of two captains

Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips.


We all like to think that we would behave in heroic fashion when put in a stressful situation. Thankfully, very few of us will find ourselves in the sort of position Captain Richard Phillips did on the morning of April 8, 2009 when four Somali pirates boarded his ship and eventually took him captive in a small lifeboat, beginning a four-day ordeal that would test the mettle of the bravest of men.

Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips goes out of its way – sometimes too much for its own good – to accurately recreate this trail and in the process gives us a moving portrait of grace under fire, as well as a picture of humanism that’s at the core of true heroism. That Tom Hanks would give a solid performance in the title role comes as no surprise; but the true revelation here is with his four costars, Somali immigrants with no previous acting experience whose genuine approach to acting helps add a layer of verisimilitude that grounds the film while underscoring the story’s inherent tragedy.

Greengrass’ methodology here is to present both sides of this story from an objective point of view. As such, our first sight of Phillips is that of a family man, gathering his things for an upcoming voyage, sharing a ride to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener), discussing issues of family. He’s a by-the-book kind of boss who checks to see if passageways on his ship are secure and, while never inviting overfamiliarity, bonds with his crew of 20 but keeps them on task. He heeds warning of piracy occurring on the route they are taking, running drills and making all on board aware that they’re entering dangerous waters.

These scenes are juxtaposed with those recounting the plight of a small group of Somali men, in particular that of Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), a fisherman from a small village who, along with his peers, have been left with little recourse but to do the bidding of a warlord named Caraard. With the waters near their home depleted of fish due to the global demand for seafood and the ability of major corporations to harvest them in mass, these men are forced to hijack ships at the bidding of those above them who are looking for a big payday. Muse and his three friends – Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee (Faysal Ahmed) and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) – set out to make a name for themselves, intent on boarding and holding a large ship in the hopes of getting a big ransom.

Certainly, Greengrass is not condoning the actions of these men but in providing their backstory, they become much more than just stock villains. We understand what drives them, as well as the sense of desperation that motivates them, humanizing them in the process and fostering a measure of sympathy for them.

As I say, Greengrass goes to great lengths with his “you-are-there” aesthetic and for the most part, it is effective. Small, handheld digital cameras allow him to get close – sometimes uncomfortably so – to his characters to the point that you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on their conversation. This is particularly effective during the film’s last hour, which takes place in a small lifeboat that Phillips has been trapped on with his four captors. These tight quarters are rendered even more claustrophobic with this approach. However, this ends up being a double-edged sword. The director’s ever moving camera calls far too much attention to itself at times, and it’s a technique that’s overused.

Equally troubling is his adherence to rendering the Navy Seals’ rescue mission in minute detail. Taking a cue from Zero Dark Thirty, the film nearly grinds to a halt during its third act. While I applaud the effort to present events as accurately as possible, in the end, it doesn’t make for very compelling filmmaking.

Fortunately, the cast’s efforts ground the story with a realism through their performances. Abdi, found through an open audition in Minneapolis, of all places, with his three costars, brings a raw energy and sense of danger to his role. There’s never a question that he and his veteran costar are sharing the screen equally. As for Hanks, he’s as solid as ever but pay special note to the final scene in the film. He lets his guard down to achieve one of the most honest acting moments ever captured in a movie. It’s a remarkable moment and reiterates that in striving to create realism on film, a capable actor can achieve this far better than any inventive camerawork can ever hope to.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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