Saturday, 9 November 2013

Captain Phillips [Review]

Opinion: A-

By Jason Lin

Paul Greengrass' dedication towards his craft that seeks realism is well observed in his latest feature Captain Phillips as he commandeers a nearly impeccable action thriller vessel that arrests viewers at gunpoint right from the start. Easily one of the cinematic gems for this year.

Columbia Pictures' action-thriller Captain Phillips stars two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks in the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.

Maritime security, or piracy off the Somali coast in particular, is a niche topical region that is likely to be dear to the shipping industry. Not only is it commercial and technical, it also involves certain sociopolitical elements that deserves some level of awareness towards a broader audience.

Based on true life accounts of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates during his command of MV Maersk Alabama and subsequently authored "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea", Paul Greengrass charters a cinematic vessel and takes his audience on a remarkable voyage that keeps them constantly at the edge of their seats.

Not that the high seas are rough, although Greengrass adopts a handheld camera visual perspective with his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who did Green Zone) as part of his efforts to achieve realism (while the uninitiated may complain from possible dizzy spells), but it's the thrilling action via devised tensions amidst vast amount of research and details that overwhelms and inspires the main story much closer to the hearts of viewers.

Vast is an adjective that will undermine Greengrass and his team's efforts towards background technical research. From the linguistic maritime terminologies right to the tactical naval special operations, the details are also executed correctly in synergy. Presumably with the advice of industry and military practitioners.

Not forgetting how the acting in Captain Phillips also achieves a high standard of realism, as it leaves little questions to the onscreen character behaviours. What seems to be obvious product/brand placement, such as the deliberate Maersk branding, might be some of the few areas that will not agree with Greengrass' efforts to achieve realism. What might be of interest is how Captain Phillips is perceived in real life as he allegedly risked piracy to save fuel (fuel is an obscene cost for ships as marine bunker fuel accounts for over 50% of a ship's operating cost) and time. In any case, a new rising issue on privately contracted armed escorts onboard commercial vessels plying near high risk waters is now in place.

Technical excellence aside that has enabled the film to be a quality canvas for the actors to paint the strokes, the acting takes significant credits to help Greengrass reflect certain themes and values. The breath-taking first confrontation between the ship crew and the Somali pirates enjoys an exhilarating build-up and climax that really gets viewers chewing their nails as if they are the ones being held at gunpoint.

Easily one of the best performance by Tom Hanks in the recent years, his performance ranges from nuance to hysterical. One of the later scenes where he is being triaged by a paramedic/doctor remains as one of the best examination and reenactment of actual human behaviour. Barkhad Abdi as the lead Somali pirate helps the realism cause further as he is a non-actor who nevertheless renders a good performance. The uneasy chemistry between Hanks and Abdi's characters do serve as some of the memorable highlights of the film.

Greengrass does not depict a conventional impression where the Somali pirates are the clear antagonists who wreck havoc for a bunch of unsuspecting seafarers. Instead Greengrass reflects some of the sociopolitical sentiments subtly, mostly through physical acts and non-verbal communication. There is a shift in perceived roles as the lines between right and wrong is blurred by motives and complex human emotions revealed.

Piracy in Somali is indeed induced by external drivers both native and global. The increase in commercial shipping activities off the Somali Coast has resulted in a negative impact upon the livelihoods of Somali fishermen through the reduced supply of seafood. Somali feudalism drives fishermen towards organised crime (piracy) as they need to feed/support warlords and what better opportunity to capitalise upon than the significant world maritime cargo traffic that is moving along the Somali coast.

Interestingly, Greengrass didn't create a huge agenda out of the sociopolitical themes and instead focused on the characters and the genre deliverables. This allows Greengrass to focus more on the action and drama. As an action thriller, Captain Phillips soars to the top spot for this year. In terms of plausibility and credibility, it also ranks highly with the tremendous (commendable) research efforts taken.

Despite a long and trecherous voyage (134 minutes), Captain Phillips remains firm and steady to emerge as a very likely award season candidate later this year.

(Preview screening courtesy of Sony Pictures Singapore)

1 comment:

  1. I agree that Greengrass did do a great job of trying to show both sides of the socio-politcal world. Here's my take on the film:

    The best thing about Paul Greengrass’ new action thriller Captain Phillips is that it is actually about Captain Phillips. No, this is not a joke.

    Phillips is an adept ship captain for the huge shipping conglomerate Maersk. He assumes his role aboard a freighter docked in Oman bound for Kenya, and this route is straight through the Gulf of Aden, past Somali, the most pirate infested piece of ocean in the world. I assume most viewers entering the theatre already know that this film is about pirates attacking a ship. The film does fulfill this expectation in the first act, but from there everything that happens is as unpredictable as is possible to be unpredictable.

    First of all, kudos to the trailer’s producers and marketers for selling this film as a conflict totally based upon on the hijacking of a ship. While this is the first major conflict of the film, it is not the only one. As the ship’s hijacking unfolds, and errors occur, whole tangential series of events and complications are created. Greengrass takes these tangents to a place we never could have expected, and all of a sudden we have an unexpected thrilling crisis of a film.

    Overall it’s a simple story, but it’s so creative in its originality and unfolding that I was on the edge of my seat the whole film. Since it’s based on a true story I guess Greengrass shouldn’t get all the credit. A lot of the credit must go to one the two scriptwriters, Richard Phillips. He adapted this script from the book that was based on true events.

    Second of all, there is a storyline involving the Somali’s and the world they come from. It was a great idea to include this. We are shown that Somali pirates are not just pure evil, but are in many ways forced into the acts of piracy they undertake. In a extremely revealing scene Phillips and Muse, the head pirate, reveal how higher levels of bureaucracy influences both their lives, they both have bosses they say.

    In a moment of cinematic excellence, Greengrass actually makes the viewer feel sympathy for Muse despite the fact that he is a maniacal, automatic weapon toting killer who hijacks ships. Sir Greengrass, very well done.

    There has been a concern over this film’s release though, and this raises the question that all art needs to consider: do the events of the film/artwork that declare themselves as true have an obligations to actually be true? Or can anyone declare anything and make into a work in itself?

    This though comes from media attacks on the real Captain Phillips. According to The Guardian, apparently Captain Phillips himself was not the hero he is portrayed as in the film. He was a notoriously difficult captain to work for, and by sailing too close to Somalia some say he was the cause of the whole incident. Debate aside, very good film.


    Having transvered this section on ocean myself I feel a particular attraction to hijacking movies, and so I had to compare the Captain Phillips to Tobias Lindholm’s 2012 feature A Hijacking. Lindholm’s film was fantastic but in Lindholm’s take the onboard antics of the pirates are the focus. The Somalis were portrayed as plot devices. They reminded me of the riverboat’ crew à la Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; they were there to serve their purposes as savages, and that’s it. So Unlike Greengrass’ portrayal, in A Hijacking we hate the pirates.

    No subtitles (expect Danish to English), no frills, no action sequences, no military, just pure, raw, compelling filmmaking, with the ship’s cook as the main character played brilliantly by Pilou Asbæk. I was worried that Greengrass saw the Lindholm film, which was an indie film on a tight budget, and decided remake it as blockbuster. I can say with complete confidence that these are two completely different films with only two real things in common, Somali pirates and ship hijackings.

    A hijacking: Highly recommended!


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