Thursday, October 17, 2013

In Theaters: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Paul Greengrass.  Written by Billy Ray.  Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, Yul Vazquez, Max Martini. (PG-13, 134 mins)

Paul Greengrass brings the harrowing immediacy of BLOODY SUNDAY and UNITED 93 and the relentless pace of THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM to this dramatization of the hostage ordeal of Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks).  Phillips was the captain of the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama when it was boarded by four Somali pirates while en route from Oman to Kenya in April 2009.  When his crew manages to capture pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), they get some leverage to convince his cohorts to let Phillips go, but the exchange is botched and the four pirates end up taking Phillips with them in the Alabama lifeboat, with the ship itself closely trailing them.  Eventually, Seal Team Six is dispatched and a full-scale military operation is launched to rescue Phillips from his captors before they can get him to Somalia.

Like any film "based on a true story," dramatic license is used and liberties taken.  Controversies erupted shortly before the film was released as Maersk Alabama crew members began strongly disputing the way the film presents the events and, specifically, Captain Phillips.  Hanks portrays the captain as a stickler--fair and just, and one of the team, but he's all business.  He takes e-mail warnings of piracy threats seriously and runs the crew through a drill just before a first failed attack by a larger crew accompanying Muse.  Not so, say some crew members, who paint a picture of Phillips as vain, arrogant, and even having a "death wish," intentionally steering them into dangerous waters known for pirate attacks.   They claim Phillips ignored the warnings and during the first of two attacks (as opposed to one presented in the film), insisted on finishing a lifeboat drill with the crew as the pirates approached the ship.  Eleven crew members of the Alabama are suing the Maersk line for Phillips' "willful, wanton, and conscious disregard" for their safety.

There's two sides to every story and the fact is, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is not a documentary.  It's Hollywood entertainment first and foremost and if Phillips isn't the heroic figure that Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (SHATTERED GLASS, BREACH) depict, it would hardly be the first time that a real-life event was fictionalized for entertainment purposes.    In the film, the Maersk crew respect Phillips, and he only raises his voice when confronted with irate crew members who "didn't sign on for this" (but they quickly pull together and rally behind him), and prior to the attack, when he passive-aggressively informs some union guys that they're taking too long on a coffee break.  Regardless of any alleged liberties taken, the film is a grueling nail-biter of the highest order, with Hanks turning in one of the most subtly powerful performances of his career.  It's one that really crescendos into an emotionally draining finale when Hanks displays what might be the best ten minutes he's ever had onscreen.  Even knowing the controversies going in, and trying not to compare the possibly very flawed real-life Captain Phillips with the idealized, American everyman "Captain Phillips" being played by Hanks, it's impossible to not get sucked in by the actor's stunning work in this scene.  It's the kind of scene--like Jessica Chastain's outburst to her boss in ZERO DARK THIRTY--that guarantees an Oscar nomination.

The Alabama crew features some veteran character actors like Chris Mulkey and David Warshofsky, but other than Hanks, the focus is on the four novice actors who play the pirates:  Abdi as Muse, Barkhad Abdirahman as the teenaged Bilal, Mahat M. Ali as Elmi, and Faysal Ahmed as Najee.  Recruited in concentrated Somali immigrant enclaves in Minnesota, these four newcomers hold their own with the two-time Oscar-winner.  Muse is a reluctant pirate, only doing it because of the lack of opportunities and a need to impress their powerful warlord.  He just wants money and goods and has no real desire to harm anyone, which contrasts sharply with the bloodthirsty Najee.  You know how every cinematic hostage situation has the one guy with a bad temper and an itchy trigger finger who fucks it up for everyone else when things are going smoothly?  That's Najee's function here. 

Given the current legal proceedings against the Maersk line and the allegations against Phillips, it's clear that the Captain Phillips story is far from over, but as its own Hollywood suspense thriller, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, after some strangely clunky, ham-fisted foreshadowing in an opening scene with Phillips being dropped off at the airport by his wife (Catherine Keener), is one of the year's most intense and ultimately emotional films.  By the time the Somalis attack the Alabama--both the failed first attempt and the successful second--in a pair of heart-pounding, drawn-out sequences where no detail is left unaddressed, you'll be hooked.

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