At the Movies: Captain Phillips

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Another movie in the running for all kinds of awards is Captain Phillips, the account of the real-life act of piracy off the coast of Somalia back in 2009. Okay, how do you take a highly publicized recent event, where the world and his wife and the little dog behind the stove all know the outcome, and make a terrifying nail-biter of it? Well, if you’re executive producer Kevin Spacey, writer Billy Ray, director Paul Greengrass, and star Tom Hanks, you do it so well that I had nightmares that night. Some of that, I admit, has to do with the still-lingering aftereffects of my own experiences of being held at gunpoint and shot (my bride, as tough a piece of work as ever survived Hollywood, slept like a baby), but much of it was due to the way the director keeps the tension building, which—in turn—was due to the performances.


Tom Hanks. Come on, I don’t have to tell you that Tom Hanks is a stone genius when it comes to acting. He’s one of our very best and I expect nothing less than brilliance from him. But the others! The director managed to find some Somali actors (at least, I assume they are Somali; for all I know they’re long-time residents of Wisconsin working at the Milwaukee Repertory) who are so convincing as the wild, desperate, doped-up, violent, unpredictable pirates that you honestly don’t know (in spite of having read all the newspapers and seen the television coverage of the actual event) if one of those lunatics is going to pull the trigger. I’ve obviously never seen or heard of any of these actors before, but they all—to a man—turned in brilliant, terrifying performances as men with none of the morality or reverence for life or even logical and linear thought processes that most of us take for granted, men driven as much by despair and fear of even worse men waiting for them back on land as they are by greed and amorality. The same goes for the actors who turned in such realistic performances as the terrified crew, and the calm, dispassionate Navy Seal team that brings the nightmare to a close. Every single one of them is so well cast and does such an honest job that you forget you’re watching a movie, and begin to believe you’re watching a documentary, which is why the tension becomes so unbearable.


Kudos especially to director Paul Greengrass. He is, apparently, known for his use of hand-held cameras, which contributes to the documentary style, but he also made brilliant use of the limitations of his locations. The ocean, the vastness and emptiness of it, and how both vastness and emptiness become more and more ominous as the drama unfolds. The staggering size of the freighter that also becomes a cumbersome, threatening handicap to Captain Phillips and his crew. The terrifying, nauseating, claustrophobic confines of the lifeboat where the final hours of the ordeal play out.


Since the real story is so well known, I’m not concerned with spoiling any surprises at the end, so I will tell you that after the final shooting there is a very quick scene of the Seal team—coldly capable professionals whose muscular, rugged, clean-cut looks and discipline provide a stark contrast to the erratic and murderous frailty of the pirates—calmly and silently dismantling their weapons and gear and packing everything away, and that quick scene tells you more about those men than any high drama Hollywood has ever manufactured.


Go see Captain Phillips. You won’t be disappointed. You may lose some sleep, but you won’t be disappointed.

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