‘Captain Phillips’ tows audience through emotional hurricane

October 20, 2013
Tom Hanks stars in "Captain Phillips."

For those, like myself, who enjoy feeling that rush of fear in films in preparation for the upcoming Halloween holiday, set aside your slashers, and leave the zombies for another day (they're undead; they can wait). For if you wish to witness guttural terror of the real-life variety, take a cruise with "Captain Phillips," which effectively had me clawing at the panic button on more than one occasion.

A relatively straightforward nautical tale, "Phillips" is based on the true account of commercial tanker Captain Richard Phillips, whose vessel was seized by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa in 2009.

There are no Jack Sparrow comically drunken antics here, though. For a sobering two-plus hours, we are captive right alongside Phillips as he merely attempts to stay alive throughout the ordeal.

"Philips" is able to maintain its credulity and tension for a number of reasons. The first is that of its villains, most notably Muse, an emaciated man who has what Shakespeare called "that lean and hungry look." Played by Somali-born Barkhad Abdi (making his acting debut), Muse is a man driven by having nothing left to lose. His home is a pit of despair, and driven merely by the necessity of survival, Muse is terrifying in that he, too, is fighting for his life.

When his crew first sets out unsuccessfully to take on Phillips' MV Maersk Alabama, one of the ship's workers intones "They'll be back," with ominous inflection that suggests Muse and crew have "Jaws"-like tenacity. Abdi commands as a man with a singular purpose, one who is not necessarily prone to violence, but has no qualms about using it to accomplish his task.

Hanks, as Phillips, demonstrates why he is such a beloved actor for the masses. There is a reason he’s a star, and his raw performance here is one of his finest. His Captain Phillips is not a warm fellow. He’s firm, methodical and all business. This most likely comes with the turf when your job is manipulating a 500-foot cargo container ship through treacherous waters. His captain never once tries to play the hero, and makes no move that does not consider his crew first.

Hanks remains the focus of the film for the majority of its runtime - much of the time in very close quarters - and he conveys a man whose wheels are constantly spinning, not necessarily looking for an escape, but a way to defuse the situation.

Director Paul Greengrass has had his admirers and detractors throughout his career, neither really questioning his ability as a filmmaker, but rather arguing over his techniques. He favors the personal, hand-held approach (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “United 93”) often referred to as “shaky cam,” and audiences can rely on a heavy musical accompaniment in scenes that call for silence. If “Captain Phillips” has a drawback, it is this use of a soundtrack in scenes where the intensity speaks rather loudly for itself.

When it comes to the use of jumpy camera shots, Greengrass dials it back here, but when it is used, it seems more than fitting for its oceanic setting - disorienting viewers in an environment on which any and all characters can be pitched or tumbled, thus changing the course of the outcome.

If you want to put your nervous system through a true endurance test, make this a double feature with “Gravity,” which is quite similar thematically (disasters where everyday people are far from the comfort of terra firma).

But make sure to bring a towel to mop the sweat off your brow, as “Captain Phillips” hits a level of tension fairly early on and tows its audience through an emotional hurricane.

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