Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Captain Phillips Movie Review

The difference between bad acting and good acting is fairly obvious to most people. It’s the difference between stiff mimicry and genuine imitation, or even expression, of emotion. But to distinguish between good and great acting is something else. There’s a much more subtle distinction. It comes down not only to how well the actor reads a line of dialogue or how convincingly he portrays an emotional moment, but to the choices he makes and the wholesale embodiment of the emotional dips and rises that the scene demands. I can understand how an actor depicts certain emotions. I can imagine working myself up to a frenzy for a manic scene or well up with anger to express rage. I can even imagine pushing myself to a dark place to show sadness or melancholy. But as Captain Richard Phillips, the cargo ship captain who was held hostage for several days by Somali pirates in 2009, Tom Hanks gives us one final scene that is so off-the-charts good, it mesmerizes and reveals exactly how brilliant his choices were for the first two hours.


After enduring endless hours of tension from trying to protect his crew and his own life while simultaneously remaining stoic, in command, and conciliatory to his captors, there is a final release as a Navy corpsman examines him that is so honest and real it is absolutely heartbreaking. Everything that precedes that scene in Captain Phillips is breathtaking and brilliantly executed by director Paul Greengrass, but I wasn’t fully convinced until that closing moment, a scene that lasts an excruciatingly long four or five minutes by my estimation.

Richard Phillips is depicted as a reasonably ordinary man. The opening scene has him putting final preparations on his cargo ship’s journey before his wife (Catherine Keener) drops him at the airport. On the way they have a rather ordinary discussion about their kids and then say a rather ordinary goodbye. By putting Keener, a recognizable movie actress, in this role, Greengrass seems to be calling specific attention to the importance of her role in her husband’s life. Every time Phillips mentions his family from that point forward, we have a face and a voice associated with her, even though we’ve seen her character in only one scene. After that, Phillips is all business once he’s on board: the anti-pirate cages need to be locked down; coffee breaks don’t run over the allotted fifteen minutes; emergency action drills will be run to assure preparedness. He knows that sailing around the horn of Africa and along the coast of Somalia is the world’s most dangerous trade route.

We know the inevitable is coming and Billy Ray’s screenplay, based on Phillips’ book about the incident introduces us early to the Somali pirates, their village, and their circumstances, which lead young men and teenagers to engage in acts of piracy at sea. It’s not about capturing luxury items to resell, but about holding hostages, both people and goods, for ransom. They seek straight monetary payouts so they can pay off the warlords who wield a mighty fit over their homes. The conditions of the Somalis’ lives is presented not so much as an excuse for their criminal behavior, but as an explanation for their actions. It is a fact of life that they do it not out of love of crime and violence or even for the ease of getting wealthy. After all, there is no promise of wealth, only the temporary removal of threat. This is survival for them. In fact, the lead pirate, Muse (Barkhad Abdi, whose eyes reveal a strength and intensity that belie his wiry frame), dreams of moving to America to become wealthy. How’s that for an irony?

Greengrass’s directorial style is nearly identical to the flare for camera movement and editing he brought o the Bourne films, Green Zone, and United 93 with quick, though non-chaotic cutting of action sequences, fast push-ins, handheld cameras. What all these films have in common are sequences involving coordination of multiple parties and agencies, the use of technology, computers, scopes, tracking devices, and wiretaps to lay out the movement and positioning of characters entering dangerous situations. He makes these otherwise indecipherable scenes that are commonly loaded with badly scripted jargon and sound bites seem entirely convincing. His actors, whether they are air traffic controllers wondering why United flight 93 is off course, CIA spies using all sources to track a man who knows how to disappear, or Navy SEALS planning a deadly attack on a small lifeboat to free a cargo ship captain are always portrayed as consummate professionals and totally in command. When you consider the number of balls he’s got to keep in the air so that the audience never gets lost, you realize just how skilled he is.

It’s a hell of a thing to be the man in charge in a situation that carries great potential peril. To be responsible for others, to be the man they’re looking to for the decisions. Richard Phillips was that man and though he probably never thought of himself as a hero and never really considered how he would react or what decisions he would make under such duress, it’s clear from the outcome of this real life event that he maintained unbelievable composure and managed to get his crew out of harm’s way while putting his own safety in great jeopardy by abandoning ship with the pirates in a lifeboat. Hanks never gives the game away, he never reveals what he’s really feeling. He knows how to hold the Muse’s attention and keep him believing that he’ll get what he wants if he just keeps calm. I sat wondering through the whole film when the big dramatic event would arrive. Where was the scene of Phillips getting a moment to tell his first mate that he’s scared and blah, blah, blah. But Ray’s screenplay holds it all until the crisis is over, a time when Phillips’ personal crisis is just beginning. Greengrass’s decision to hold onto that medical examination for such an extended time was perhaps the best decision he made because it sells the film. You have to wait two hours to get there, but man is it worth it.

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