One of my top ten films of 2013 was A Hijacking, a little-seen Danish film that, similarly to Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, turns a spotlight on what happens when a group of Somali pirates take over a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean. However, almost everything else about the two films is different.
A Hijacking revels in searingly tense silences, exploring the devastating human cost of the hijacking for the hostages, pirates and negotiators back in Copenhagen. Conversely, Captain Phillips moves at a frenetic pace, jumping from tense confrontation to tense confrontation without allowing its audience opportunity to take a single breath. A Hijacking digs into the pirates’ motives and spreads its focus to three different men, while Captain Phillips is undoubtedly a biopic, laser-focused on giving lead actor Tom Hanks the chance to bring a true American hero to life. One film zeroes in on minute details, while the other utilizes its bigger budget to focus on crafting an immersive, gripping story.
Both approaches have their merits, but it’s easy to see why Captain Phillips‘ polished, Hollywood feel has connected more strongly both with American audiences and Oscar voters. It has a ripped-from-the-headlines hero in Richard Phillips (Hanks, at the peak of his powers), a race-against-time set-up masterfully constructed by scribe Billy Ray, complex antagonists and, perhaps best of all, direction so unbearably tense that you find yourself reduced to a sweating, shaking mess by the time its blistering finale rolls around. Like last year’s Best Picture nominee Argo, Captain Phillips is an exercise in nerve-shredding tension.
At the center of it all is Hanks, who’s all kinds of brilliant here. The Academy somehow left him off the ballot for Best Actor this year, but he should really be the front-runner, not a snub. It’s that simple. The intelligence and dexterity of his performance is staggering, something that hopefully more people will come to realize as time passes. Hanks effortlessly communicates countless layers of control, fear, dread, hope, canniness and ultimate hopelessness with enough force to knock you sideways.
The same can be said for Barkhad Abdi, whose pirate leader Abduwali Muse is the most desperate and hungry of the hijackers. The electrifying menace he brings to his portrayal of Muse makes the man terrifying as a hijacker but also deeply believable as an individual using the only methods available to him to eke out an existence. Abdi lets us inside Muse’s head and shows us the pirate’s wretchedness, conflicted humanity and ultimate understanding of his impending doom. His is a jittery, raw powerhouse of a performance. That such compelling acting comes from a newcomer who was working as a chauffeur in Minneapolis a little over a year ago just makes Abdi even more impressive to behold.
The other pirates, played by newcomers Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali, are all extremely emotive and unsettling. Even as the tension ratchets up to agonizing heights and their voices grow louder and increasingly worried, the actors’ physical and verbal actions reveal a terrific understanding of character. For their pirates, there is no way out of their dire situation, but a life of poverty, danger and violence in Somalia has conditioned them to fight until their last breath. Authenticity is absolutely crucial for a movie like Captain Phillips, and these actors have it in spades.
Performances aside, this is an immaculately crafted film. Paul Greengrass tends to divide audiences. Many admire his shaky-cam style, and others dislike his movies for the same reason, claiming that his hand-held cinematography serves only to disorient. He’s an instantly recognizable director, and this film uses a lot of the same claustrophobic angles and dizzying cuts that put him on the map. Luckily, unlike in Green Zone and in some parts of the Bourne trilogy, there’s no whiplash, vertigo or nausea to be found here. Instead, Captain Phillips finds Greengrass using his distinctive skill-set to craft his strongest, smartest and most dramatically draining work yet.
Don’t go into Captain Phillips expecting to simply lean back in your seat and be entertained. Don’t get me wrong – it’s one of the best thrillers of the year. However, it’s also far from an easy film to watch. Brilliant, committed acting abounds, and Greengrass turns the tension up to almost scalding levels from the opening scenes. Your mind will thank you for watching a movie that so elegantly and emotionally details the brutal reality of modern piracy, but your armrest (or nails, in my case) certainly won’t.
The Blu-Ray transfer for Captain Phillips is top-of-the-line in every respect. Sony’s “mastered in 4K” presentation excels in rendering razor-sharp, gorgeously colored picture quality. There’s admirable attention to detail through Captain Phillips, and Blu-Ray is unquestionably the best way to experience it. To use facial features as an example, the image captures every small bead of sweat, hair and crease on its actors’ faces. The ocean is often entrancingly blue and sparkles with life, while the hard metals of the two ships (the Maersk Alabama and its lifeboat) also look terrific. Even when scenes take place in the shadowy bowels of the Alabama or the close quarters of the lifeboat, the picture quality remains crystal clear. It’s one of the most visually impressive transfers I’ve come across.
The audio quality, in the form of an industry standard 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track, is also stellar, capturing every line delivery as well as extremely detailed background sounds, from the ringing of footsteps against the floor of the Alabama to the soft crashing of ocean waves. There are no moments where the dialogue lacks clarity, quite a feat in a film that features dialogue in multiple languages. Sony should be commended on the lengths it went to give Captain Phillips a truly terrific home release.
If there’s a weak spot anywhere in Captain Phillips, it’s in the special features. Though what’s available is very good, there are no deleted scenes or full-length interviews with cast and crew members, despite such material clearly having existed at some point. In a film as obviously challenging to shoot as Captain Phillips, that’s a shame. But enough crying over spilt milk. The disc features:
- Commentary with Director Paul Greengrass
- Capturing Captain Phillips
Greengrass does a fine job with the commentary, delivering a mother lode of information about many aspects of bringing Captain Phillips to life. It’s a feature-length commentary, and though Greengrass is typically calm and methodical in his approach to discussing the film, that doesn’t mean that his commentary drags. Conversely, he has a ton to say about the film’s bigger themes, characters, character development, filming, editing and influences. If you’re as fascinated by Captain Phillips as I was, it’s well-worth a listen.
“Capturing Captain Phillips” is an impressive making-of extra, clocking in at just over 58 minutes. Featuring interviews with dozens of individuals involved with the production, including the actual Richard Phillips, the extra really gave me a feel for how difficult it was to shoot Captain Phillips. Greengrass and co. were at the mercy of maritime weather throughout their time shooting off the coast of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea, and multiple action sequences proved extremely dangerous for cast and crew members (get a load of Abdi, who begins his discussion of how he approached the scene during which his hijacker leapt from a skiff to a ladder on the side of the Alabama with, “First, I had to learn to swim”). The feature also explores camera choices for the film, what went into setting up certain sequences and many other topics. Viewers hungry for more information about the talented young actors who portrayed Phillips’s captors won’t go away disappointed – some of the most interesting interviews and segments of the feature focus on Abdi, Abdirahman, Ahmed and Ali.
To put it plainly, Captain Phillips blew me away. It’s a first-class nail-biter with phenomenal performances, a gripping story and searingly intense direction. Sony’s Blu-Ray package is fantastic, and I can strongly recommend picking up a copy. Captain Phillips boasts one of Hanks’s best performances, Greengrass’s finest work as a director yet and a crop of attention-grabbing newcomers, particularly Abdi (I wouldn’t be surprised to see him steal Jared Leto’s Best Supporting Actor statuette next month). It’s also one of those rare films with enough raw power to steal your breath away.
Outstanding performances abound in this explosive powderkeg of a film, directed by Paul Greengrass with enough blistering intensity to rip your nerves to shreds.