Sean K. Cureton

Allegorical Thrills and Socially Conscious Action, or The Hollywood Action-Thriller by Paul Greengrass

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on November 3, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Theatrical Poster

Captain Phillips
Directed by Paul Greengrass
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Inspired by the events surrounding the infamous hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somalian pirates in 2009, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is a viscerally stunning thriller, cinematically impressive in terms of the approach it takes towards its material. Without over-stimulating the senses of the audience, Greengrass’ new film is able to tell a potentially polarizing story in a way that feels nuanced and complicated, rather than simplistic and manipulative. Through the use of the now ubiquitous filmmaking technique of the hand-held “shaky cam,” Greengrass’ film gains a sense of realism and immediacy, even if the now popularized method used to achieve such an effect still feels too much like a gimmick, out of place in an otherwise near immaculate film. While it might have been easy to turn the pirates into pure bred, vilified antagonists, Greengrass transforms his Somalian pirates into a metaphor for the economic disparity between third and first world countries, providing social commentary to an already well known story in order to complicate and challenge the viewer’s preconceptions about the events that unfold. When Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) asks Muse (Barkhad Abdi) whether there isn’t some other line of work he could take up besides being a euphemistic “fisherman,” Muse replies “Maybe in America,” which serves to set the tone for the entire film, laying bare a carefully composed social critique that makes Greengrass’ picture so memorable.

From the very beginning of the film, and up until the very last shot before the closing credits, Captain Phillips is a film that doesn’t let go of the hold that it has on the viewer’s attentions and sympathies. By starting the film slow, with scenes that allow the viewer to become intimately acquainted with both Richard Phillips and Muse on a personal level, and then gradually increasing the amount of action and tension allowed to be seen on screen, Greengrass is able to produce a film that feels personal and heartfelt, reaching beyond the confines of its source material and genre. The fact that the viewer is not simply able to build a connection to the Somalian pirates, but is expected to do so, points to the intelligence and empathy of Greengrass as a singularly talented director within the action-thriller genre. Again and again, Greengrass’ camera stops and meditates on a particular scene, character, or action, forcing the viewer to come to terms with how he feels about the situations depicted, rather than offering the quick release of pervasive action sequences more common in the typical Hollywood action-thriller. Captain Phillips is a slow moving, brooding monster of a movie, offering thrills that leave you on the edge of your seat days and weeks after having actually seen the film.

Taking on the leading role of the eponymous Captain Richard Phillips, Tom Hanks has never delivered a performance quiet this emotionally affecting and revelatory. While Hanks may have received an Oscar for his performance as the mentally challenged hero of Robert Zemeckis’ over praised Forrest Gump, it is this film that feels more career defining and expertly articulated. Hanks as Phillips is the epitome of the everyman, humbly working for the benefit of his wife and son at home, and forced to take on the unexpected and dangerous adventure of defending the lives of his crew from armed Somalian pirates. Supported by the phenomenal performances from a crew of first-time actors portraying the pirates, led by the sublime actor Barkhad Abdi, Greengrass’ film is raised to unimaginable heights. The choice of hiring a crew of untrained actors for the role of the Somalian pirates was a risky move on Greengrass’ part, but one that paid off in spades, and serves to vastly improve the film’s theatricality.

While Greengrass’ new film feels a little too slap dash at times, owing to his aforementioned use and affinity for the “shaky cam” technique, Captain Phillips is so well executed and performed that any of the more worrisome aesthetic flourishes of Greengrass as auteur can be quiet neatly swept under the rug. Borrowing from his work on the Jason Bourne films, Captain Phillips is appropriately action packed, while leaving room for its talented actors to augment and perfect Greengrass’ style with an extra dollop of humanity and pathos. Tom Hanks and first time actor Barkhad Abdi are phenomenal, delivering performances that intensify the action on screen, rendering the tension of the overall cinematic experience palpable. The force with which Greengrass tells this now familiar story is unrelentingly exciting, leaving viewers in a state of shock not far from that experienced by Phillips in the film’s final and intimately immersive final sequence. Captain Phillips is an expertly achieved action-thriller, providing subtle commentary throughout, without overwhelming the film with politics or a more overt ulterior agenda, which would otherwise render such a film too plodding or distastefully premeditated.

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