Monday, October 21, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW Captain Phillips
Boxed In By American Imperialism And Its Results

Tom Hanks in the title role in Paul Greengrass's docudrama "Captain Phillips".  Sony/Columbia Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, October 21, 2013

Pulsating with tension and agonizing, prolonged suspense, "Captain Phillips" is an extremely nerve-wracking experience.  Directed by Paul Greengrass in docudrama style, the film is based on the true story documented by Captain Richard Phillips in his book on the April 2009 Somali pirate hijack of his Maersk Alabama freight vessel off African waters.

Tom Hanks commands the screen as the flawed, complex title figure, who may be as exhausted by the implications of American imperialism and global branding as Muse (Barkhad Abdi), his adversary from Somalia is.  Muse (pronounced Moo-see) and his crew members dash out to sea in their small wooden boat to intercept the gargantuan crates of million-dollar merchandise and goods being hauled to Mombasa.  The specter is pure David and Goliath, as Muse and company go up against a behemoth of money, privilege and capitalism.  Muse, a fisherman, has found a big fish to reel in. 

There's no "good" or "bad" guy in "Captain Phillips".  Mr. Greengrass, a director with a documentary and docudrama filmmaking background ("Bloody Sunday"), pours humanity and empathy into his film and each character, which is what makes "Captain Phillips" so arresting.  Phillips arguably puts his own crew in jeopardy and later abandonment.  Muse, a dedicated, insistent fighter for his cause, underlined by an excellent, charismatic performance by Mr. Abdi in his maiden acting turn, wants to literally and metaphorically own a piece of America if not by land then by sea.  Muse spouts lines you expect to hear in American action movies.  "I am the captain now."  He's no doubt seen plenty of action films.

"Captain Phillips" is a psychological action film.  Mr. Greengrass invests in high stakes chess and stealthy, suspenseful moves that pay dividends in ways big and small.  As always the director skillfully prepares his battlefield, previewing both sides of a fragile dividing line between his protagonists and antagonists as he did in films like "United 93".  He captures brotherhoods, alliances and an overall test of wills in such claustrophobic and limited environments that add to the heat and urgency of the drama that arises.  Throughout, the griminess and brooding are a slow burn yielding to a plaintive wail by a character late on.  The scream is a primal yelp of trauma, relief and horror.  It's a scream we as an audience have wanted to scream for over two hours.

Mr. Hanks internalizes his conflicts, guilt and survival instincts in a revelatory performance that solidifies the range of his work.  I don't think "Captain Phillips" represents Mr. Hanks's best work but it is an impressive depiction of a character who has lost belief in what his mission and purpose is.  Phillips has to find a new way to navigate himself if not his juggernaut ship, and this is the intriguing journey "Captain Phillips" becomes.  We labor with Phillips for as long as we are able, and sometimes, being as close as we are to him, the endurance is unbearable.  Meanwhile Muse has a deep love-hate relationship with America, and you can't help but feel for him, and feel that he trusts in what America has to offer even as it has left its unwelcome footprint on the African continent much to his chagrin. 

My one criticism of "Captain Phillips" comes in its look at Muse's crew, specifically one member, a maniacal sort whose eyes are fixed in a permanent state of bug-eyed fury.  It's the kind of caricatured cardboard invention that gives way to charges of racial insensitivity and demonizing, not unlike the racist portrayals of Somalis in Ridley Scott's jingoistic "Black Hawk Down", also based on a true story.  Why is there a need to demonize when you can simply just tell your story?  Mr. Greengrass makes this ill-advised mistake with this lone character.  While the Somali pirates of 2009 weren't choirboys they were human.  Though the director understands this with Muse and one cohort he doesn't quite bring that comprehension full circle, and that undercuts the humanity and cohesion he shows elsewhere.

The tone and urgency of conversation shifts a lot in "Captain Phillips" and it is a marvel to hear the emotional range of dialogue between and amongst these men.  The frenzy, panic, calm, pleading and confidence, all demonstrated in varied pitches, cadences and inflections.  These speech rhythms are constant, a soundtrack of their own.  Some of these speech patterns will be underlined by fear, mistrust and vengeance.  Billy Ray expertly crafts a taut script, calibrating frantic, guttural exchanges perfectly.  On a visual level Mr. Greengrass uses space, intimacy, language barriers and perspective well, sustaining a visceral and powerful atmospheric pull we can't escape. 

Overall, "Captain Phillips" is an unrelenting ordeal, a cinematic triumph that can't be denied.

Also with: Barkhad Abdirahman, Mahat Ali, Faysal Ahmed, Chris Mulkey, David Warshofsky, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Yul Vazquez, Catherine Keener.

"Captain Phillips" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance abuse.
  The film's running time is two hours and 14 minutes. 

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