Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Film Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenplay: Billy Ray
Stars: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Michael Chernus

I do not write in hyperbole nor do I exaggerate the truth. You’ll never read a review of mine where I ‘literally rolled around laughing’ or ‘saw the greatest film ever’ three weeks in a row. I do not get swept up in mass hysteria and I’m not afraid to speak my mind on all matter concerning film. Believe me when I tell you every word of my experience having seen Captain Phillips is true.

Captain Phillips is a masterpiece and nothing short of a masterpiece. When it ended I cried for it felt like I had been waiting to see a film like this all my life, at least in the movie theatre. Never have I felt such tension and emotion whilst at the cinema and never has a thriller thrilled me to literally grip the armrest and squeeze my hands together to help cope with the emotion. I didn’t know it when I walked in, but Captain Phillips would become the most thrilling cinema experience in over two decades of cinema visits.

This is not to say Captain Phillips is automatically now in my top 10, 20, or 50 favourite films of all time, but as far as major studio releases in 2013 is concerned, nothing can compete.

Looking back on the film, there are scenes which, at the time, felt nothing more than just ‘good’ or ‘well shot’ but those scenes and how they are paced and what they lead to are wholly necessary. I went into the film knowing only the bare minimum and nothing more than pirates hijack a US cargo ship, so when the hijacking happens on screen it’s no surprise and not entirely exciting, although extremely well staged by director Paul Greengrass. In retrospect, this wasn’t supposed to be an enthralling scene to 99% of the film’s audience, just a necessary one. We’ve seen hostages threatened with guns countless times before, but it is what happens over the course of the next 90 minutes where the film comes into its own.

Unlike most thrillers which aim only to get bigger and grander as the stakes are raised and the running time whizzes by, Captain Phillips gets smaller, compact, and has just one single plot to sustain the audience’s attention. Where once there were dozens of lives at risk, now there is only one. Before there was an entire cargo ship to stage the action, but now the film is largely confined to a claustrophobic lifeboat. There is no ticking bomb. There are no loved ones to rescue. There are no cities moments away from apocalypse. There is only the survival of one man, which is completely out of his control.

I was also delighted that Phillips never once became an action hero or was even hinted at being one; when he finds a pen, his only thought is to write a quick note to his wife to be found, he assumes, on his dead body. This act is desperately touching, yet it raises the tension levels without us even realising; this is the act of a man accepting death.

Paul Greengrass’s film is focused on the story of Phillips and Phillips alone. The action moves away from the sea for just one short scene but whereas it could have been so easy to show Phillip’s wife in watching the action on a satellite link up, or cutting to important men sitting around a large table making decisions, the film never strays from its main focus to build the tension. However, Phillips’ story is nothing without the men who captured him, and they are not given the usual angry and ‘evil for the sake of needing an evil character’ treatment we have become accustomed to in Hollywood films. I especially appreciated the duality between Phillips and Muse, the Somali Captain of this small gang; both men have their reasons for survival and both have a duty to be a leader.

Like any good thriller based on true events, the role of the director is to make their audience question how the film will end. Will Phillips survive, when all hope is lost and has been lost for a long time now? What plan do Special Forces have when their target is held at gunpoint in an enclosed vessel, refusing to stop until it has reached land? Greengrass had me asking all these questions and more. Greengrass’s directing style is well known and often copied, but this film is more restrained in the shaky cam, crash zooms, multiple angles, and quick edits he is perhaps famed for; like in United 93, Greengrass treats the material with respect but not at the expense of losing his signature style. He somehow manages to keep racking up the tension until the audience can barely take anymore, and only at the moment of climax, the firing of three rounds fired, does he allow us to relax. It is the work of a true master of his art.

In the titular role, double Academy Award winner Tom Hanks gives perhaps his greatest performance to date in a career full of memorable roles. As Phillips, he is calm and measured when the hijacking happens, every bit the Captain of his ship, but as the ordeal escalates Hanks never goes into rage, tears, or pure desperation until the very last second. Each emotion he shows comes at the exact moment it needs to and his performance is not one of ACTING! but is the portrayal of a real human being with real emotions. The cry he releases towards the film’s final stages says more than words ever could.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Despite all my efforts to describe the brilliance of this film, my words cannot convey what the film makers have managed to create in terms of tension. It is a masterclass of the thriller genre and it has to be seen. It demands to be seen.

If you liked this, I recommend:

United 93 (2006, d. Paul Greengrass): A true modern classic and even surpasses Captain Phillips in tension.

Bloody Sunday (2002, d. Paul Greengrass): Before Greengrass took over the Jason Bourne series, he made this documentary-like film about another real life tragedy. Yet again, he puts the audience uncomfortably close to the action and never lets us out.

Kapringen (2012, d. Thomas Lindholm): Although also about the hijacking of a cargo ship, this Danish thriller goes in a different direction than Captain Phillips, but is every bit as tense. One of only three films I have awarded a perfect 5 star rating to in 2013. Click here to read my review


  1. Good review. One of the best of the year for many reasons, but the main which being that it features one of Hanks' best performances in a long while. A Oscar nomination will definitely be coming his way.

  2. The movie is extremely well made, the actors are very authentic in their roles.