March 21, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 35°F


Review: Suspense sails strong in emotional epic

Oscar-worthy performances and direction keep thriller afloat

Captain Phillips

Directed by Paul Greengrass

In making “Captain Phillips,” based on the pirate hijacking of an American freighter ship in 2009, Director Paul Greengrass faced the uphill battle of creating a thrilling and suspenseful-enough film to engage an audience that already knows the ending. Nonetheless, the film’s superb acting, writing and editing help to make it compelling.

“Captain Phillips” tells the true story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his 2009 piracy ordeal aboard his freighter ship, the MV Maersk Alabama. During a routine voyage within the notoriously dangerous waters around the Horn of Africa, a small group of Somali pirates attacked the unarmed Alabama. Despite the crew’s best efforts to defend the ship, the pirates manage to make their way onto the vessel and quickly begin their takeover. Upon boarding the ship, Phillips orders most of his crew to hide, while he and a few other crewmembers are held hostage at gunpoint by the pirates in the ship’s bridge. Eventually, pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and the others leave the ship on its lifeboat in a move that would prove to be far from the end of this attack.

The film’s screenplay, adapted by “The Hunger Games” scriptwriter Billy Ray, carries much of the movie’s power through its chilling dialogue. No better is Ray’s intense writing exemplified than in one of the film’s most pivotal exchanges, where Muse and his fellow intruders reach the bridge of the ship. Upon entering the room, pandemonium driven by the aggressive shouting of several Somali phrases and the pirates’ forced entry ensues, until all is silenced by Muse who asks sharply who the captain is. Once Phillips indicates himself, a calm begins as Muse eerily tells them, “Relax, everything is going to be OK.”

Greengrass’ directing also helps the film by providing it with a chilling sense of reality through his use of a shaking camera. This purposefully rocky tactic produces a realism where the audience feels as though it is with the characters on the rough, choppy seas. At the same time, the unsteady camera boldly contributes to the film’s plot by increasing the instability of the actions. As the chaotic scenes unfold on screen, the shaking of the shots matches and masterfully accentuates the tensions and instability of the characters.

Continuing on with this trend of realism is the film’s exceptional acting. Hanks leads the cast and gives a performance that may go down as one of the multi-Academy Award winner’s best. While being faced with life or death situations that most couldn’t even imagine, Hanks uses the ideal level of confidence to make him a perfect leader. He also expertly captures the fear and emotions of situations, such as in the film’s gripping climactic standoff in a lifeboat between Muse and Phillips, that help his reactions come off as genuine.

Hanks’ emotional portrayal of Phillips is of a high enough caliber to be compared to some of his esteemed previous work, as in “Cast Away,” where Hanks includes the same level of raw emotional depth that comes with depicting a life-or-death situation.

Right alongside Hanks’ performance is that of Abdi, whose portrayal of the pirate Muse is chilling, as well as gripping. Through the sheer amount of desperation placed in all of his character’s scenes, Abdi, whose turn in “Captain Phillips” marks his film debut, adds to the suspense of the film. Much of Abdi’s emotional anguish stems from his character’s poverty and financial need for this hijacking to be a success. He draws sympathy as a man being forced to wrong others by the cruel hand of his impoverished circumstance.

Certainly a high contender for this year’s upcoming Oscar race, “Captain Phillips” provides all of the tension and action needed to craft an excellent thriller and may be a surefire audience favorite.

Overall Rating: Four out of four stars