It’s gotten to be that working class characters are something of a rarity in wide-release movies. Heroes adorned in work boots and denim have become increasingly hard to find, now that the market is so saturated with tights, cowls, and army fatigues. The exploits of superheroes and spies make for more spectacular adventures than those of your average working stiff, even though the color of a person’s collar or cape isn’t what makes them interesting – competence is. Director Paul Greengrass is an expert in his own right when presenting very skilled people going to work as cause for excitement, so it’s without much surprise that his latest film, Captain Phillips, makes a story of sea-trade gone wrong the most exhilarating fall film this side of the ozone layer.
So, what exactly is this Phillips a captain of, you, imaginary reader who hasn’t seen an ad for the film yet, may ask? A military unit? A police precinct? Some scrappy football team? What about a container ship carrying 17,000 metric tons of cargo along the east African coast? If offered the above premises to spend an afternoon with, no one would blame you for watching, and rewatching the first three options before giving the last one a fair shake. Yet, Captain Phillips is far more relatable than most war, crime, or sports films, simply by taking the stresses of a day job –in this case, oceanic shipping- and supercharging them to almost unbearable levels.
How does it accomplish this? Pirates, mostly. The hijacking of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia leads to a dangerous standoff between the more numerous American crew, led by the titular Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), and the four armed seawaymen looking to make off with a tidy ransom. Pulling off an exchange proves to be anything but a clean affair, though not because one of the hostages is a hop-along cop, or an ex-military badass. The two crews do battle for control of the ship, but it’s a struggle fought with more bluffs than bullets, each side working simple occupational skills and knowledge to their advantage. It seems that Greengrass’ more action-heavy impulses are directly influenced by the presence of Matt Damon, as the true events of Captain Phillips have more in common with United 93 than the likes of Bourne or Greenzone. Those expecting Under Siege: 2013 need not apply.
While the film sticks far closer to fact than most other entertainment that likes how “Based on a True Story” plays on the poster, you wouldn’t need to know the real story to appreciate this dramatized one. Verisimilitude and grounding are Captain Phillips’ two greatest assets. The faces of the men, the upkeep of their technology, and the condition of the boats that carry them have the weathered look of lives wearily lived-in. Hanks, as America’s honorary uncle, provides a familiar face, but his performance is all guts and no gusto. Phillips is a prickly veteran of his slowly dying trade, and one whose success in it has more to do with being cautious than clever. As in the real world, a man of preparation is often more useful than a man of action.
But that’s not to say that the film is just an exercise in minutia. Far from it: Captain Phillips is perhaps the most adrenal gland-taxing film of the year. It just happens to take a different tact in thrilling you than most of its crime and action movie contemporaries. The simple Shanghaiing becomes a multi-day race to the Somali coast once the U.S. Navy gets involved, but the age of “chicken in every pot, and a battleship in every port” global America makes rescue by actual authorities less a matter of daring-do, and more a long slog through procedure and bureaucracy. Juxtaposing the frantic hostage situation with the steely calm of the naval rescuers makes it almost impossible to habituate to the unrelenting pace, as the film races you back and forth between a boiling hot tub and a pool of ice water.
The non-stop tension will wear some viewers down over the generous runtime. Greengrass’ hyperactivity as director compliments the material well, and not just because his signature camerawork has always felt like it was meant to mimic the rollicking motion of the ocean. His jittery, fly-on-the-wall perspective puts you right in the middle of a claustrophobic pressure cooker, and the film is one of the most purely exhausting you’re like to see anytime soon. Captain Phillips operates with a sheer intensity that rarely lets up, culminating in a 20-minute climax that will fray your every last nerve. The payoff more than justifies any perceived bloat, as Hanks’ best work is saved for an emotionally powerful finale that’s worth every chewed fingernail and pit stain. Rarely has leaving the theatre after a film felt so vitally refreshing.
The physical and emotional catharsis the film inspires owes as much to the direction as it does Billy Ray’s lean, brutally-paced screenplay. Despite the great range of Barkhad Abdi’s performance as the pirate ringleader Muse, one that’s simultaneously fierce and fiercely vulnerable, some may not find enough in the text to humanize the Somalis beyond your average action movie thugs. Yet Ray is generous in his focus, with the titular captain himself being just a small part of something much bigger. Phillips is introduced bemoaning the state of work in America, one of few moments that feel labored, but the film’s interest in the effects of globalization are self-evident. The cargo hauls may be getting bigger, and the dollar figure at stake may have more zeros attached than before, but the human element keeping the world’s economies afloat hasn’t changed. There’s just less of a need for it, and without honest work, the choice becomes whether you fight for survival outside of the system, or fight to protect and expand it.
Captain Phillips is a much needed antidote to the numbing excess that’s come to define major movie-going, as Greengrass and Ray have crafted an experience as draining, sweaty, and unsexy as all get-out. The result is a riveting, adult drama that’s workmanlike in the best sense of the word. It sets to its seemingly simple task with resolve and focus, rewarding any audience willing to appreciate the value of such. We could use a lot more movie heroes, and movies in general like Captain Phillips.