Monday, October 14, 2013

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS Is Uber-Intense Stunner


- The success of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is a tribute to two things. One is the directorial prowess of Paul Greengrass. This is a guy whose reputation has perhaps taken a hit due to the rash of less-skilled imitators that he's spawned. But Greengrass is the real deal, and he proves it again here. Second is the amazing, continued ability of Tom Hanks to push himself and take his acting to new dramatic heights. While Hanks is the consummate everyman, he also doesn't merely coast on that rep, and his knockout performance in this film is proof. It's one of the best-ever performances from Hanks - a stunning, nuanced, emotionally raw performance that seriously wowed me. The combination of Greengrass and Hanks is a potent one indeed. I honestly didn't expect it from the trailers, but CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is a total stunner - one of the best dramas of 2013.

The movie is based on the recent, real-life story of Captain Richard Phillips, whose commercial cargo ship was the victim of an attempted hijacking and robbery by Somali pirates, back in 2009. Phillips wrote a book about the ordeal, and now, Greengrass and writer Billy Ray have adapted it into one hell of a film.

Greengrass expertly builds up the tension in the film - and once things fully escalate, the movie becomes a total nail-biter. But before the conflict ensues, we get some telling looks at Phillips, his crew, and also of the Somalis who carry out the desperate heist attempt. Phillips is immediately a fascinating character, perhaps in part because of his blue-collar ordinariness. When we meet him, he's with his wife (Catherine Keener) in their quiet New Hampshire home. As they drive in the rain, the middle-aged couple worries about all things you'd expect them to: their college-age kids facing a tough economy, and the long absences that Phillips' duties require of him. Hanks plays Phillips as a meat-and-potatoes guy, but also a very smart guy - a guy who's very aware of the world around him. That awareness is there in the movie's DNA - as we also see set-up scenes in Somalia, where the dreary, existential dread of mid-life in New Hampshire seems like paradise, as compared to the ramshackle living conditions and violent, chaotic lifestyle that is a fact of life there. The film by no means paints the Somali pirates as heroes or antiheroes or anything like that. But it does give context to their actions, and gives depth to their characters. Finally, there's the crew of Phillips' ship. Overall, they're a competent, salt-of-the-earth bunch - but the film, again, takes pains to give the crew guys unique personalities. The characters all feel real and lived-in. It helps that the crew isn't populated with GQ types, but with guys who are 100% believable as world-weary union workers. It all ties into Greengrass' realer-is-better aesthetic. His movies contain big action and spectacle, but it all comes from a place of authenticity. The starting point is the real-world, and the quieter moments have a documentary-like aesthetic that makes the crazier moments feel all the more plausible.

And as things get crazy, Greengrass expertly escalates the tension to almost unbearable levels. There are a number of factors that play into this. There's a very interesting dynamic, for example, between Phillip's crew and the pirates. The pirates are obviously the aggressors - boarding Phillip's ship with machine guns and ill-intent. But there's also an unsettling inevitability at play - these pirates are essentially #$%&'ed from moment one. Even though we're worried for Phillips and his crew, the feeling that the pirates are in over their heads keeps building as the movie goes on. Even if they pull off the heist ... then what? Best case scenario: they go back home to an unforgiving, war-torn country that is all but devoid of hope and opportunity. Worst case - and most likely scenario - is that they end up captured or killed by the U.S. military, which has every intent of stopping the situation before it becomes an international incident. So the intensity in the film has many, many layers. As the on-screen drama keeps getting bigger in scale - as Navy battleships and military helicopters and snipers get involved - there's so much at stake for every principal character that you can't help but be on the edge of your seat to see how this gets resolved.

An unlikely star of the film is Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, as the pirates' leader, Muse. Skeleton-skinny, Abdi infuses Muse with a blend of misguided ambition and desperation. He repeats an upbeat-sounding mantra of "everything will be alright," but behind it there's a sadness, hurt, and anger. Muse is perhaps the most rational of his associates - others are violent and aggressive, one is a young teen who got more than he bargained for in this mission. What he and the other pirates likely didn't bargain for was being pitted against a tough, sea-hardened crew and their resourceful captain.

There's great drama to be had in the chicken-and-egg game that Hank's Phillips plays with the pirates once they've boarded his ship. He uses every trick in the book to try to outwit them and get them to think of him as their friend. But there's something more in the way Hanks deals with them. Yes, he's putting on an act, to some extent, in an attempt to save his crew. But he's also acting in a kind, decent manner towards the Somalis (well, as kind and decent as one can be with people trying to hijack your boat), and they seem genuinely taken aback by it. There's a fascinating clash of worlds here - Phillips is a "put your head down and work hard" New Englander. The pirates have an entirely different ethos - take what you can, because tomorrow you may be dead. It's hard to imagine a more pronounced culture clash. Later, as the military gets involved and the situation spirals out of control, we see those same ethos pushed to their extremes, until they bend and snap. Phillips gives in to the instinct for self-preservation, and the pirates trick themselves into thinking there's a way out of their impossible situation, as they find themselves backed into a corner by the full might of Western Civilization.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS isn't an overtly political movie, but there's a ton to chew on in its subtext. So rarely do all characters in a film feel so fleshed-out and three-dimensional. Ultimately, the pirates are the film's de facto villains. But the film also forces you to think of its plotline as more than just your typical USA: good, Others: bad narrative. There's a nuance and complexity here that's admirable.

But let me get back to Hanks for a second. It's funny, because going into the film, I found his heavily-accented New England dialect to be sort of comical, judging from the previews. "We ah being boarded" became a bit of a running joke. But the reality is: in context, there's nothing cartoonish about Hanks here. In fact, there's so much subtlety and so much humanity to his performance that I was increasingly impressed as the movie went on. But what sealed the deal for me that this was an all-time great piece of acting was the film's final ten minutes or so, in which Phillips finally just breaks down after the traumatic events he's been through. This stretch of the film's final act is just jaw-droppingly powerful stuff, and it's all Hanks. The way he depicts a level-headed, almost stoic man lose his $#%^ is flat-out chill-inducing, to the point where I wanted to reach out and hand the man an Oscar right then and there. It might just be the best work of Hanks' career.

And Greengrass ... like I said, he's often imitated, but what the wannabes lack is his seeming complete command and control over even the most subtle shaky-cam movements. With Greengrass, it never feels like shaky-cam for the sake of it. Instead, you feel like you're in the hands of a guy with a very precise handle on what he's trying to accomplish. The guy is just really, really good, and he moves from small-scale slice-of-life stuff to huge-scale action in a way that's so seamless, it's amazing.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is right up there as one of the best of the year to date. Coming only a week after the epic Gravity, it makes for one hell of an October one-two punch.

My Grade: A

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