Paul Greengrass knows what he wants.
Every time I walk out of a Greengrass movie I feel like I saw exactly what he wanted me to see. He’s also not one for indulgent flourishes, and his films seem to say: “There it is.” Handheld docudramas don’t tend to be favorites of mine, but I’m fairly certain I speak for the majority when I say no one does it better than this man. Even though the latter two “Bourne” movies are completely fictional, they feel a lot more realistic than most Hollywood action fare. His aesthetic just lends itself to realism, and he’s found another story that couldn’t benefit more from this approach. He also just seems like a cool, relatively down to earth guy. I didn’t notice him at the Harvard Club party after the Opening Night screening (hopefully he skipped it to go home and read or something) but I did spot him chilling out the next day at the festival, happily talking to anyone that came up to him. I like to see that.
The closer the “Captain Phillips” release date loomed, the more people seemed to want to dismiss it as a lesser, Hollywood-version of Tobias Lindholm’s, “A Hijacking,” which was released earlier this year to fantastic reviews. “A Hijacking” is the slower, but tighter, of the two movies, while “Phillips” moves with Greengrass’ trademark tenacity. That’s as much as I’ll compare the two, because they are both incredibly well-made movies, and prove that at the end of the day a movie’s quality is dependent upon its execution as much as its content.
Richard Phillips is the kind of guy that might appear overly serious to his crew, but it’s only because he knows what can happen when you don’t pay attention for a minute. Even with his abundance of precaution, a group of Somali hijackers (quickly and effectively introduced a few minutes before) manage to overtake his ship, the Maersk Alabama, reinforcing the fact that hunger and a lack of financial options are motivating factors that can prove difficult to contend with. This is all handled believably, but the stand out detail is the performance by Barkhad Abdi as the lead hijacker, Muse, who simultaneously commands a frighteningly capable, yet unexpectedly sympathetic onscreen presence. Muse’s group manages to get aboard the ship on their second attempt, after an extra group of pirates has given up on the task, just solidifying his dedication.
After some intense confrontation between the Maersk Alabama crew and the pirates, it seems like a resolution can be attained. Before that happens, Phillips is forced into a smaller boat with the pirates, and the rest of the movie consists of the situation surrounding his capture, and the attempts made by the Navy SEALs to negotiate his return. The film feels a bit repetitive during these scenes, because there’s only so much to do, but it’s also the only time one really feels the 134-minute runtime. It’s an otherwise expertly paced piece of filmmaking. It also suffers a bit from simply being a document of something that’s already happened, and not much else. As far as that sort of thing goes, like I said, it can’t really be done better than this, and any criticism regarding that serving as a limitation may have to do more with my personal preferences than anything else.
Then there’s the third-act. “Captain Phillips” contains a 10-15 minute stretch (the most impressive parts being composed of two longer takes, at least by Paul Greengrass standards) where Tom Hanks, to put it frankly, just plain crushes it. Most of his acting here takes place after some traumatic events, part of it immediately after, and I bet some people will be inclined to dismiss it as “Oscar-pandering” or something of that nature, but it’s not. It’s Tom Hanks running the anchor leg for a movie that was probably already in the lead, and pushing it as hard as he can. He wanted it. Normally, I’d be the cynical guy writing something like this off, but not this time. As far as standalone segments go, it’s “Joaquin Phoenix getting processed in The Master” caliber acting. I was going to go B+ on this, but then that happened.