Monday, June 23, 2014

Captain Phillips (2013)

Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips. Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures

6 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Motion Picture of the Year - Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, and Michael De Luca
Nomination: Best Performance By an Actor in a Supporting Role - Barkhad Abdi
Nomination: Best Achievement in Film Editing - Christopher Rouse
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Editing - Oliver Tarney
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Chris Munro
Nomination: Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay - Billy Ray

I expected to hate Captain Phillips.

I'm not sure why this was the case.  There might not be a working actor with a better "lifetime batting average" than Tom Hanks (though Larry Crowne was bad enough to impugn his credibility for awhile), Paul Greengrass is a talented director with a strong individual voice, and the true story of Captain Richard Phillips is the stuff of which great suspense films are made.  Maybe it was the bland title of the film, the long running time, or my reluctance to sit through any film in which a non-New Englander attempts to perform the accent.  If nothing else, the name Billy Ray on the screenplay should have been enough to give me faith in the film, as Ray wrote and directed two of my favorite political suspense films of the past few decades, Breach and Shattered Glass.  While my concern about the film's running time was well founded, the filmmaking team behind Captain Phillips more than assuaged the rest of my films, and Captain Phillips was one of the films of 2013 that I most enjoyed.

Captain Phillips is really two films.  The first is the story of the takeover of the Maersk Alabama by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his team of Somali pirates and the response of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew.  This section takes up approximately half of the running time, and Ray's script beautifully and methodically reveals the characters through the rising action.  Lesser screenwriters write two kinds of scenes: scenes that move the plot forward and scenes that develop characters.  Like the best writers, nearly every scene in Ray's screenplay does both.  Christopher Rouse's editing is superb in these scenes, and the first half of the film flies by with Rouse's editing and Greengrass's sharp direction.

The second half of the film begins (minor spoiler alert to follow) once the attempt to trade the captive Muse for Phillips is botched, resulting the pirates escaping with Phillips as their hostage onto a lifeboat. Though there are some wonderful moments of suspense and emotional drama in these scenes, the film loses its momentum.  The suspense of these scenes is not nearly as intense as in the first half of the film.  The script shifts its focus from the relationship between Muse and Phillips to a greater focus on "Will Captain Phillips survive or not?"  Because Captain Phillips is based a true story and Phillips was prominent in the news after the highjacking, the suspense of the film evaporates.  Hanks, however, is brilliant in these scenes, portraying deep vulnerability even as he performs the bravest of acts.  His final scene of the film is one of the great moments of a legendary acting career, and in another year might have been enough to secure him his sixth Academy Award nomination.

The revelation of the film is Barkhad Abdi, appearing in his first film after previously working in mobile phone sales and limousine driving.  Abdi is an untrained actor, but I never would have guessed this if not for the fact that it was mentioned a thousand times in the month before the Academy Awards.  Abdi walks with a natural swagger that belies his slight frame, yet also shows a vulnerability similar to that of Hanks.  This is the type of role that is probably going to be career-defining rather than career-making, but Abdi is brimming with talent and will hopefully continue to find opportunities to develop as an actor.

Phillips and Muse are two men who have very few choices available to them to support themselves and their loved ones, and though the film never forgives the acts of piracy and violence, it does successfully provide context to the actions of the pirates that elevate them from stock villains to developed characters.  This allows them to be fully realized foils to Phillips, and the interactions between the men provide just as much suspense as the film's most action-oriented scenes.

Captain Phillips didn't have much of a chance in the technical categories, with Gravity dominating the below-the-line awards.  I can't argue with the voting of the Academy.  Captain Phillips was the second or third best in each of the six categories for which it was nominated, but wasn't the best in any category.  Rouse's editing work is the one possible exception to this, but it's hard to argue with the absolutely brilliant editing work by Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger for Gravity.

If you can ignore the bland title and the occasionally suspect accent voiced by Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips is a wonderful and memorable film well deserving of the six Oscar nominations it received.


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