Hanks and director put on suspense clinic in 'Captain Phillips'


A scene from the new film "Captain Phillips."

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 3:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 3:31 p.m.

Who'd have thought that we'd have two movies in as many weeks about a small group of people isolated in a deadly situation?

Facts

"Captain Phillips"

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman

★★★★

First came “Gravity,” which brought home the terrifying helplessness of being trapped in space, and now “Captain Phillips” has arrived, in which the titular captain and his crew find themselves on a cargo freighter with a group of bloodthirsty Somali pirates. While lacking the visual and technical grandeur of “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” is exceptionally well made in its own right, and its better-developed cast of characters ultimately makes it the more compelling of the two films.

The events that make up the plot of “Captain Phillips” are pretty well known at this point, given that they made headlines worldwide, but here goes all the same. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) was an American freighter captain leading his ship around the eastern coast of Africa when he and his crew encountered a band of pirates. Though the crew did everything they could to try to prevent the pirates from boarding, the pirates ultimately seized the ship and took Phillips hostage in a lifeboat.

The movie's script is based on a book Phillips wrote about his experience, so even if the events in it may not all be strictly true, they have the ring of verisimilitude. What stands out about the script, however, is just how much work the movie puts into making sure the pirates aren't just nameless, cookie-cutter figures. The movie builds early momentum by depicting the pirates gearing up for the raid and showing how they're driven by miserable poverty and fear of local warlords. It doesn't excuse the pirates' actions, but it does explain why they're foolhardy enough to attack an American ship, and it makes them into more compelling characters.

As Phillips, Hanks reminds us of why he has maintained his star power through multiple decades now. With his grizzled beard, touch of grey and glasses, he embodies ordinariness, but he also illustrates Phillips' keen mind and resourcefulness. Before the pirates actually board the ship, Phillips leads the improvised defense, using fire hoses, flares and other ordinary objects to try to keep the pirates at bay. Even after the pirates take control, Phillips' clever use of delaying tactics allow his crew to stay one step ahead of them. When Phillips finally runs out of options and is taken prisoner, though, Hanks makes sure the audience can feel his fear and the pressure he's under.

That all said, Hanks is not the only actor worth mentioning here. As Muse, the leader of the pirate band, newcomer Barkhad Abdi does stellar work, molding what could've been an utterly disposable role into something much more fascinating to watch. Muse is keen to make a big score to impress his fellow pirates and fulfill his dream of wealth, and he has a certain ruthless cunning to back it up. But when the situation compresses into the lifeboat, Muse gets increasingly frantic, which makes Phillips' position that much more perilous and ups the tension that much more.

Weaving all these elements together is director Paul Greengrass, best known for bringing shaky-cam choreography to the forefront of action movies with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Greengrass is still working with a handheld camera here, but he's refined his technique considerably; the camera work is fluid but never jittery, and Greengrass uses the freedom from bulky camera equipment to get shots from seemingly impossible angles in tight quarters. The movie's sense of claustrophobia, especially once the action shifts to the lifeboat, is palpable and exhausting, and credit for that goes to Greengrass.

If only more movies would show the same dedication to craft as “Captain Phillips.” While the movie may have relatively modest aims (it wants to be a REALLY tense suspense piece, and not much else), the fact that it succeeds so well on its own terms puts it above much of its competition. If “Gravity” reminded us of the cold cruelty of nature, this movie reminds us that people can be equally cruel to one another.

Read more of Sun move critic Rob Ryan's thoughts on Hollywood on his blog.

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