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Captain Phillips

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/24/13 11:43:56

"A you-are-there thriller that's not lost at sea."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I wonder if movies like "Captain Phillips" (and other features, including director Paul Greengrass's "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93") are causing the definition of a "docudrama" to shift. Traditionally, the word has simply meant any fictionalized presentation based on a true story, but the likes of Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow in recent years have pushed it toward a more specific meaning: A focus on detail and procedure ahead of an overt character arc and a filmmaking style that suggests the fly on the wall more than the omniscient narrator. "Captain Phillips" is not the most extreme example of the style, but it is hands-on in a way it might not have been fifteen years ago.

The film starts in two very different corners of the world: In Vermont, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is reaching the end of his vacation and preparing to return to his work as a merchant marine captain, while in Eyl, Somalia, the head of the local pirate gang is demanding more production from his subordinates. The two collide a few hundred nautical miles off the Horn of Africa, as Phillips and his Maersk Alabama crew do their best to ward off an attack led by the cunning and determined Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

For all that the navies of the world are sophisticated, technologically advanced organizations, one of the more immediately striking things audience will learn - or be reminded of - when watching this movie is just how simple modern piracy tends to be. Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray sketch the important details out quickly - how the organization of the pirates is more akin to organized crime than the romanticized adventurers of the past, what makes the Alabama a tempting target, how greater speed and fire hoses are often enough to hold attackers like Muse's group off. Greengrass and company aren't giving a lesson on how to be a better pirate or avoid their attacks, but they excel at giving the audience information as they need it. It's great "how this works" material, smoothly presented.

Even as how things work is being established, the movie is also building itself up as a thriller, and quite a good one. The scale can sometimes feel like it's a bit off, as the sea-level approach of following those right in the thick of the action prevents cuts to the politicians and decision-makers responsible for how the scope expands in the film's latter half. Things suddenly seem much bigger than they were and a new supporting cast is suddenly switched in. It's still plenty exciting, though, as the filmmakers never lose track of just how threatening one person with a gun can be, while even the most clever of improvised solutions tend to be believably flawed or simple.

Greengrass and his crew present the story with admirable clarity, although sometimes the tendency to pull from both documentary and dramatic styles can be a bit jarring. As folks who have been watching his movies for the past ten years know by now, he loves his hand-held cameras, resulting in a bit of jitter even when what's on-screen is fairly mundane. They do work better here than they did in Greengrass's Bourne sequels, as they restore real-world imprecision to actual events as opposed to obscuring something meant to be extraordinary. On the other hand, Henry Jackman's score is surprisingly front-and-center at times, considering the you-are-here effect the filmmakers generally strive for, but it almost always has something to add to the scene. The attention to detail is top-notch; the environments and the practiced behavior of the characters let the audience know everything it needs without a lot of exposition.

Hanks and Abdi are a big part of that. Both are playing smart men under stress, and neither is doing it alone - the supporting cast on both sides executes the thankless but vital task of creating characters that seem to have full histories and personalities that we never see because the specifics are irrelevant to the story at hand. They make fascinating mirror images of each other, each with his own sort of bravado and a sense of going past no-nonsense to the point of being a bit of a demanding cuss as far as his underlings are concerned. Those are character traits that fracture in interesting ways when the characters are put into the charged situations the movie supplies, and both Hanks and Abdi do a great job of showing it. The most important thing, though, is that the two never seem to be competing on-screen; even in big moments that actors often lap up for being character-defining, neither actor is trying to overpower the other, both subjugating themselves to showing what happened and how.

That doesn't make it cold or emotionless at all - it just means that the emotions seem to come from the moment, rather than someone trying to make clear what the moment means. With that intent in mind, "Captain Phillips" delivers

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