Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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Captain Phillips

Film #397

THE PLOT

The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.

Year 2, Film #32

THE REVIEW: One thing I’ve found very interesting over the past year of doing this movie marathon is how much of an impact recency has on one’s viewing experience. Not in the sense that it shapes your thoughts on the film you just watched, but you use recent films as markers as to how good the one you just watched is. For me, Captain Phillips joins both Don Jon and Rush as recent advanced screenings I’ve had the opportunity to see and the common thread that has been present throughout is expectations. Don Jon failed to live up to my high expectations whereas Rush surpassed my moderate to high expectations. Captain Phillips is an interesting case especially when compared with Rush. While Rush was a character film with action, Captain Phillips is an action film with character. Both are successful at what they do and while Captain Phillips underwhelmed in some areas, it grossly over-performed in others easily making up for lost ground.

The big draw for Captain Phillips is two-fold: the action and it’s realism, both of which Paul Greengrass has shown prowess for. Let’s start with the realism as that pertains to the story. Over four years ago in April 2009, the MV Maersk Alabama was attacked and hijacked by four Somalian pirates and received wide coverage in the media, the first successful attempt on an American vessel since the 19th century. While I was aware of the story pretty much the only thing I knew was: pirates. Captain Phillips tells the tale from the ship leaving port to the rescue of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) — the rescue shouldn’t be a spoiler to anyone. The film carefully balances action and drama, tension and calm. While some of the general structure was a bit rough — the hijacking and the hostage situations are each very well done, but the transition between the two felt a bit abrupt — overall I would compare the narrative to a beautiful piece of classical music: artfully composed in a way that moves you, carries you from one scene to the next providing all the necessary highs and lows to hold your interest throughout.

Having some great action should come as no surprise given that it’s coming from Paul Greengrass. Shot in his signature handheld shaky-cam with nary a stationary shot, it adds a level of grittiness and of immediacy. There are enough establishing shots to give you the sense of space (the extreme wide shots of the open ocean are just spectacular) but once that’s taken care of, you’re thrust in with the thick of it, not sure of what’s waiting behind the next corner. One example would be on the Maersk Alabama when the pirates are checking every compartment and another would be on the life boat when Phillips is trapped in seat 15 with no control. Surprisingly, this style has gotten old. You would think after seeing it so often in all the Bourne films, Greengrass’ United 93 and Green Zone, in addition to countless other movies recently that some sort of fatigue would set in and the shaky-cam would just be nauseating. As far as Captain Phillips is concerned, it’s still an effective style and provides for some of the most intense, heart-pounding moments I’ve seen in a while and that includes watching the burning cars and exploded limbs in Rush last night.

I mentioned the structure was a bit iffy for me, at least the transition from the first to the second half. Another iffy moment for me was at the end as the U.S. Military mounts their rescue operation. My complaint here revolves around a single line, repeated four or five times, that almost brought the film to a complete halt for me. Everything up until this point had been stellar. Even the transition between plot points was a mere afterthought by this point as you become engulfed in trying to get Capt. Phillips to safety. But then line is repeated, and it really is such a stupid and completely ridiculous line, and the tension diffuses. I thought it would be impossible to recover from that simple but grave mistake and yet, they did it. Not only did the situation become even more intense (thank God for the wonderful Navy SEALS) but Tom Hanks also stepped up to the plate; big time. Up until the final scene, Hanks delivered a very good performance; nothing especially great but he did bring Richard Phillips to life. But that last scene alone, a scene not typically shown in a based-on-true-events film, had me at a loss of breath. I went from elation and excitement for the conclusion of the hostage situation to being utterly mesmerized. Without saying what specifically happens, I’ll say that Hanks showed a human response that is often talked about, but rarely ever seen and Hanks absolutely nails it.

My expectations for Captain Phillips were just as high, if not higher, than my expectations for Don Jon and Rush. And while, like Rush, there are some aspects to Captain Phillips that aren’t perfect, it’s an overall great film with a few key moments that truly make up for any problems the film has. This is another one I would highly recommend seeing when it comes out in theaters. While I doubt this will be taken seriously for the top categories this awards season — due to it’s action genre — I fully expect the film to receive at least a handful of nominations in more technical categories. And who knows, depending on the competition for acting this year, a slight chance of Hanks getting a nod too.

Captain Phillips opens in theaters on October 11, 2013.

THE RATING: 5 out of 5