*** out of ****
While director Paul Greengrass is most famous for directing The Bourne Ultimatum, he also helmed the harrowing United 93. With Captain Phillips, he teams with screenwriter Billy Ray (who wrote and directed Breach and Shattered Glass, two excellent films based on true stories) to tell the true story of a cargo ship under attack by Somali pirates.
United 93’s brilliance came in the way it established the mundane details of the day before the terror that followed. Captain Phillips does a similarly good job of depicting the daily routine on the ship before the pirates attack. Once the pirates appear, it effectively details step-by-step the crew’s efforts to survive. Every decision and piece of action feels authentic, like something a real person would do, as opposed to the CGI-aided action and preposterous decision making that fuel most thrillers.
The performances are believable; Hanks is the only face most moviegoers are likely to recognize. While his New England accent is iffy, he still exudes a strong presence on screen. The actors playing the pirates are convincingly scary (but in a human way) and the men playing Hanks’ crew also acquit themselves well.
The movie bogs down some in its second hour when the situation largely turns into a stalemate. It doesn’t quite have the visceral power of United 93, which started slowly and built to a terrifying final hour. Once Hanks is on his own with his captors, the stakes feel a little lower. I remembered the story of Captain Phillips from the news, but I couldn’t remember if any of his crew died. So in the first hour, there’s a lot more suspense, but in the second hour, it feels less suspenseful and the pirates’ actions are all vain efforts to postpone the inevitable.
However, it does feature a strong epilogue (it’s a true story, so I don’t feel I’m spoiling anything) that shows audiences the mental and emotional effects of violence on its victims. All too often, movie characters survive terrifying ordeals then seem perfectly happy and A-OK once the bad guys are dispatched. Captain Phillips has the sense to show that while people can survive physical violence, the mental and emotional scars linger long after the bad guys are gone.
Captain Phillips may not be material for the year-end top 10 list, but it is still a solid piece of intelligent filmaking.