Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Captain Phillips (2013) – Review

Review: Captain Phillips is an intense and realistic-feeling thriller. The film is about the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, the Captain of a U.S. cargo ship that is taken hostage by Somali pirates.

Director Paul Greengrass is known for his documentary-like directing style: shaky handheld camera work, gritty realistic feel, natural lighting, and naturalistic acting. His style is again employed to great effect in Captain Phillips. If nothing else, the film feels very realistic (with really only Tom Hanks’s presence separating it from feeling like a documentary – seeing Tom Hanks, a huge movie star, almost takes the audience out of it, but thankfully Hanks is quite good in the film).

The camera is constantly right in the mix of the action, giving the audience the impression that they are right there with Phillips, a hostage themselves. And to this degree, Greengrass builds up a fair amount of tension that feels unrelenting. The audience is never given a chance to really breathe. Every time it seems like things will be alright, the stakes are only ratcheted up to a higher rung. Greengrass does not provide a release until the credits role. This is quite a feat for a film in which the audience knows how it ends coming in. And yet, it also in a way works against the narrative’s overall pacing. While Greengrass has created a perfect tone and look for the film, the perpetual stress that the audience feels for the second two acts is almost too much and even feels a bit tedious. Audiences need moments of release throughout, typically, for a thriller to maintain its hold for an entire narrative.

The issue here with Captain Phillips is that there simply is not enough time. There film’s runtime is already 134 minutes, which leaves almost no time for lighter moments to juxtapose the tense moments against. Basically, the film is structured primarily just to tell the story of the pirates taking the ship and the immediate aftermath and resolution. The film does not have much character development or the time to create a fuller feeling narrative.

The lack of character development does not seem like a big issue in the moment, because Greengrass keeps things moving and the tension high. The audience is essentially on the edge of their seats from the time the pirates board the ship until the end, but not because they are invested in the characters rather it is the aesthetic style that has pulled them in. However, aside from the audience’s interest in seeing the narrative resolved, there is not much else to keep them interested in the film besides seeing the ploy resolved.

Phillips is not really developed much more than being a typical ship Captain who worked hard to get where he is, worries about his kids, and takes his duties seriously. Even more grievous, though, is the lack of development of the pirates. Greengrass shows the audience that they live in squalor with warlords forcing them to work, but it all feels superficial. He just does not have the time to really dig into what drives these men. The audience never really cares about these men, even though there are greater forces seemingly extorting them, causing them to choose this life (left with no other option). They are very interesting characters, but the audience is not really given much, and the film even seems to simply vilify them (when that just feels like too easy an answer, despite its attempts to show the story from both sides). Thus, Phillips is left as the only hero, but without much development, it is up to Hanks’s performance and charisma to draw the audience to his side (and he is up to the task). It feels like Greengrass wanted there to be an interesting dichotomy between the opposing sides, each with their valid motivations for why they do what they do, he just did not have enough time or could not structure the main drama efficiently enough to fit it all in.

In many ways, Captain Phillips is a film that works in much the same way as Zero Dark Thirty, but it succeeds to a much lesser degree because unlike Zero Dark Thirty, the film never quite creates a powerful and compelling lead character (which I almost think should have just been Muse, as his dramatic arc is far more compelling). Plus, the story, while interesting, just does not have the same initial grab as Zero Dark Thirty’s narrative, thus character development is even more vital and thusly missed to a greater extent.

However, despite its faults, Captain Phillips is still undoubtedly a strong thriller (especially on its initial viewing). Greengrass pulls the audience in with his brand of gritty realism and then just lets the suspense mount and mount.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Paul Greengrass changed the way Hollywood makes action thrillers with the aesthetic style with which he shot his Bourne films. However, he is maybe even a better filmmaker when recreating true stories as dramatic features. Bloody Sunday and United 93 are probably his strongest films, and Captain Phillips is very much in the same vein. It is too bad that he could not have included more character moments (as I think the film could have been incredible).

Henry Jackman combines industrial and tribal influences to create a fantastic score that complements the drama and tension within Captain Phillips. It also does a good job setting the tone for the film. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is a frequent collaborator with Greengrass (having shot United 93 and Green Zone). Their work together really perfects Greengrass’s aesthetic shooting style on this film. Many have complained that Greengrass’s camera often feels overly shaky (seemingly for no reason), but here everything comes together to create a genuine feeling of realism. Again, the audience feels like they are right in the middle of the action. Paul Kirby’s production design compliments this realism as well. His sets and design look and feel very authentic.

The cast, mostly made up on unknown actors, feels honest – in many cases the performances feel as if they are being done by people who do these jobs in real life. Francine Maisler’s casting is phenomenal, especially in her finding the actors playing the four main Somali pirates. Catherine Keener plays Phillips’s wife, but I assume her role was initially much larger as she appears in what is essentially a cameo in the first act without really anything to do. Michael Chernus, Mahat M Ali, Faysal Ahmed, and Barkhad Abdirahman are all good in smaller supporting roles. Barkhad Abdi really emerges as a potential breakout star with his performance as Muse. Despite his small stature, he comes across as being very intimidating, and he is able to convey the pain and deeper struggle that he is experiencing as he is trying to lead his men to a good result (aka them garnering money for their hostages). Tom Hanks is also very good in the film. He has just enough charisma to get the audience on his side (plus, he is the innocent party). His fear feels genuine which translates to the audience, making the tension all the more palpable.

Summary & score: Captain Phillips succeeds as a good thriller because of director Paul Greengrass’s aesthetic style. It is a gripping narrative film that feels real. 7/10

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