The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips tells a harrowing true story that many people may remember from 2009. Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, the captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo ship. As the film opens, he kisses his wife (Catherine Keener) goodbye and hops a plane to where his ship is docked. This particular voyage is set to take Phillips and his mostly union crew through an area where known Somali pirates lurk. Aware of the threat, he conducts emergency drills to prepare his crew for any possible threat. They sail on. The drills prove useful. Four armed Somalis, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), begin chasing the ship in a small skiff. Phillips attempts to orchestrate some defensive maneuvers, but the pirates still manage to get on board. From there, the situation proceeds to become more and more dire – for everyone.

The most difficult part of writing a review of a movie that's based on a true story is deciding what does/does not constitute a spoiler. What I've described sounds like it would make for a 30-minute film. In reality, Captain Phillips delivers 134 of the most intense minutes of cinema you'll see this year. There are dramatic twists in the tale, largely involving the motives of the Somalis and how they plan to achieve their goals. The Navy's attempts to rescue Phillips are a big part of the movie, as well. Even if you know the outcome, there's an inordinate amount of suspense generated as you watch how events unfold.

Captain Phillips was directed by Paul Greengrass. As he did with United 93 and two of the Bourne pictures, Greengrass takes a documentary-style approach to the material. (It's often unfairly described as “shaky-cam.”) This method goes a long way toward making you forget that you're watching a reenactment of actual events. The movie has a real sense of urgency, crystallizing how much is at stake every second. Best of all, Captain Phillips avoids the trap of feeling “action-ized,” of seeming as though it's artificially amping up the proceedings.

The other effective thing the movie, written by Billy Ray, does is to humanize the Somalis. It doesn't sympathize with them, but it doesn't portray them as generic monsters, either. Muse is a fully fleshed-out character. While we don't agree with his reasons for doing what he does, we most definitely understand them. He comes from a place of extreme poverty. One good score could change his life and the lives of his co-conspirators. It is this simple fact that causes the men to keep pushing, even when it becomes clear that the Navy is going to press hard against them. Because Captain Phillips so acutely portrays the desperation behind their actions, it makes the characters all the more chilling.

Tom Hanks delivers yet another brilliant performance as Richard Phillips. His work is deceptively subtle. For much of the film, Phillips is stoic. He has a crew to protect. There's no room to lose his cool. In the final fifteen minutes, though, he can no longer hold it in. Emotions come pouring out, from all across the spectrum. Hanks handles this transition with grace and authenticity. He is well matched by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who is so natural on camera that you swear they must have gone and hired a real Somali pirate for the role. Abdi is a force of nature in this movie, projecting a scary mixture of anger, determination, and self-delusion. He gives one of the best debut performances you will ever see.

As exciting as it is, Captain Phillips is ultimately about much more than thrills. The suspense comes from the ideas that run underneath the plot. There are people in the world who crave things most of us take for granted. Some of them will resort to extreme measures to get those things. This outstanding film drives that idea home with immense power.

( out of four)

Captain Phillips is rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use. The running time is 2 hours and 14 minutes.

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