Judge Erich Asperschlager is the captain now.
"You're not just a fisherman."
There are few phrases scarier in the moviegoing world than "based on a true story." With reality television choking the airwaves and mash-ups topping the charts, the last thing consumers need is more unoriginality. When I first saw trailers and ads for Captain Phillips, it looked like the worst kind of Oscar bait. Tom Hanks is great, but who wants another dramatization of real events filtered through an action director's lens?
As it turns out, I do.
Facts of the Case
Based on the memoir A Captain's Duty, Captain Phillips is the story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by Somali pirates. Despite the quick-thinking and experience of the ship's captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), a skiff with four armed men led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) boarded the ship and subdued its crew. After an 8 hour standoff, Phillips convinced the pirates to take the lifeboat and leave, allowing himself to be kidnapped to save his crew, leading to a stand-off in open water between the boat and the U.S. Navy.
I was dead wrong about Captain Phillips. It's not lazy, it's not sentimentalized, and it doesn't lean on the crutch of a "true story" to sell a movie obviously tweaked for attention-deficient audiences. Director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray start with a well-known story, then build a thrilling movie that explores the intersection of logic and emotion during a crisis.
A lot of Captain Phillips is people following procedure. Phillips checks his ship before embarkation. Muse chooses his pirate crew. After fending off the pirates' first attack, Phillips assures his crew they will prevail if they do things by the book. The Alabama follows their procedures; the pirates follow theirs; the military force sent to rescue Phillips does almost nothing but follow procedure—and Greengrass shows it all in detail.
All "true story" movies feel inevitable. Most of the time that's a problem, but Greengrass turns it to his advantage. He uses the fact that a large number of viewers will come to Captain Phillips knowing how it ends to build tension. The real Captain Richard Phillips says in the included featurette that his ship being attacked by pirates wasn't a matter of if, but when. Every year a trillion dollars worth of goods move through the waters off Somalia, a poor country run by criminal warlords.
Seamen who work on these ships expect to run into pirates. Hanks' Phillips knows it too. He reads piracy warnings in his email, checks to make sure the ship's pirate gates are locked, and has the crew run drills. From the first time the Alabama picks up the skiffs on their radar, the crew knows it's only a matter of time. That inevitability carries through the rest of the attack and Phillips' kidnapping. Once the military gets involved it is inevitable that the massive Navy warships will prevail against the tiny lifeboat. The tension in the story comes from the unknowns that interrupt the inevitable: a faulty firehose, a loose cannon crewmember, the pirates refusal to bend to military might. Greengrass gives those unexpected moments more impact by setting them up with lengthy sequences anticipating the next turn.
Captain Phillips is on a massive scale, but the drama isn't in the conflict between huge ships and small crews. It's the story of two smart, determined men facing off during a crisis. Tom Hanks is so good in everything it's easy to take his performance here for granted. For most of the film, his Phillips is understated—calm and decisive in the face of danger to himself and his crew. The groundwork he lays over the first two hours of the film are what make the ending so incredible. He releases all of Phillips' pent up fear in a heart-wrenching depiction of a survivor in shock. It's his best scene. Hard to believe it was unplanned and essentially improvised.
Hanks' counterpart is the impressive Barkhad Abdi. The Somalia-born newcomer disappears into the role, using his eyes and body language to convey intelligence and power, naivete and fear. It would be a challenging role even if Abdi wasn't playing opposite a Hollywood mega-star, but he is more than up to the task. Abdi and Hanks might be the main attraction, but the supporting cast is equally strong, especially Muse's fellow pirates played by Somali actors Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat Ali, who create fully rounded characters with very few words. They are human, if not sympathetic—the opposite of the faceless, impersonal enemies of other siege films like Assault on Precinct 13.
I'm not sure that "mastered in 4K" is as much of a selling point as Sony would like, but there's no denying that Captain Phillips (Blu-ray)'s 2.40:1/1080p transfer looks fantastic. Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd decided to shoot on film rather than digital, and the result is a warm, natural image with strong color and a fine grain structure (minus the occasional grainy low light and super-16 sequence). Even with limited locations, there's surprising variety in the conditions under which Captain Phillips was filmed: in bright open rooms, near-pitch black ship interiors, and cramped lifeboat quarters. Day and night, big and small, Ackroyd captures everything with clarity and detail that shines in hi-def. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix has a wide sonic range, from subtle environmental surround effects to explosive gunfire and booming Naval horns. The audio adds authenticity to the true crime story.
There are only two bonus features, but together they create a compelling look at the production process and story behind the Hollywood film.
• Audio commentary with director Paul Greengrass: In this informative if slightly dry commentary, Greengrass reflects on the film's themes and talks at length about the benefits and difficulties of shooting on an actual cargo ship, and everything he learned while making the film about the shipping industry and pirate attacks.
• "Capturing Captain Phillips" (58:17): This three-part featurette is a fascinating and thorough look at the real story and what it took to bring it to the screen. It combines news and behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with Greengrass, cinematographer Ackroyd, and the real Captain Phillips, who speaks frankly about his experience as a captain and hostage. The documentary also focuses on the actors, including the way Greengrass purposely kept Hanks and the Somali men separated until they shot the scene where the pirates storm the bridge.
• DVD Copy
• Digital Copy + UltraViolet Download
It's not easy to build a thrilling film out of a well-known story, but director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray do just that in Captain Phillips with deliberate pacing and authentic details. The film is a showcase for Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who ground an international incident in a battle of wills between two men. It doesn't hurt that the true story of Captain Richard Phillips' capture and rescue is tailor-made for the big screen.
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