News Column

'Captain Phillips' is one of the best films of the year

October 10, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 10--"Well at least we know how the film ends, anyway."

So said one of the people at the screening of the intense and extraordinary "Captain Phillips," one of the best of a movie year that is shaping up to be at the very least memorable and quite possibly mind-boggling before it's over.

Well, no he didn't. And you won't either.

The thing that confirms "Captain Phillips" to be a truly great film is its coda, after all the action, desperation and commanding suspense is over. It is there that Tom Hanks, playing the eponymous kidnap victim on the high seas, does something that I don't think I have ever seen any actor do before on film, much less Hanks. (Note to self: The great actors can still surprise you. Never forget it.)

I won't go into it because when you see the movie, you need to be hit by it as strongly as I was and other people have been. Let's just say it involves breaking through a cliche of movie storytelling which is to bombard you with action and rend your emotions with suspense and then cliched resolutions. Our movies about war and crime and most other things are almost always in the violence, brutality and jeopardy business. What they seldom are -- except for masterful large-scale exceptions like "The Best Years of Our Lives," "The Men" and "Coming Home" -- is in the business of showing us consequences.

Aftermaths in our movies are afterthoughts. Or worse.

Well, not this time. What Hanks does right before you get up to wend your way to the parking lot is the truly unforgettable part of what has already been a tremendous thriller.

The reason it's easy to joke about knowing how the story ends is that this film -- as with so much great moviemaking coming up this month ("12 Years a Slave" in early November) -- is based on historic fact, in this case very recent history.

In 2009, Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by Somali pirates after they hijacked his commercial cargo ship the Maersk Alabama. After a few days, he was rescued by Navy SEALs in events seen on TV news broadcasts, newspaper front pages and magazine covers all over the world.

How, you might say, can there possibly be any suspense to a movie when you know the outcome and the principal figure in the story has already written a best-selling book about it (upon which the film is based)?

Easy. You hire Paul Greengrass, who has become by any possible assay, one of the most accomplished directors we have, both with this sort of front page adaptation (his 9/11 film "United 93" was hugely underrated I think because it touched on raw public nerves) and the harrowing action kinetics of the best Bourne movies. And you hope the movie has a script by Billy Ray, another specialist in the realm of giving fiction the thunderous clout of the real world. (See the two movies Ray both wrote and directed -- "Shattered Glass" and "Breach." For lovely monetary remuneration, he writes the script for things like "The Hunger Games.")

These are men who know how to give a movie the energy of fiction and the sting of reality.

That's what you've got here as they turn real events into film.

Hanks' is one of the three harrowing performances in the film. This is the Hanks whom we remember again as one of the central film performers of our time. And then, in that coda to the iron grip of film's plot and action, he becomes the Hanks whom we discover to be still capable of doing things in front of a camera we've never really seen before.

Small things, perhaps, but which will loom large in your memory.

It ought to go without saying that crucial to all this are the first-time actors who play the Somali pirates -- especially the frightening and unstable twosome who battle to be in charge and make all the decisions.

They're played by Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman, two young men who sometimes seem as slender as dynamite fuses and with burning eyes.

If the word "pirate" makes you think of a one-legged Robert Newton rasping out his sinister affections for "Young Jim 'Awkins" on the way to "Treasure Island," forget it. There's nothing the slightest bit comic or Romantic about these pirates. They're desperate mercenaries interested in maximum reward.

As this film has it, neither the crew of the Maersk Alabama or their captain were under any delusion of their safety from pirates in those waters. The crew isn't happy about it, in fact. As the pirate threat begins to become scary indeed, one (played by Chris Mulkey, a veteran cinematic malcontent) says, "I'm a union guy. They're not paying me enough to fight pirates."

One of the first things the captain does, in fact, on taking command is tell his crew "let's tighten up security." Tightened security is to no avail. Pirates, after a diabolically well-conceived chase, take control of the ship. And then under duress, escape in one of the ship's large orange lifeboats with Captain Phillips as the hostage they hope to hold for significant ransom.

And then those Navy SEALs whom we almost can't help mythologizing anymore, take over.

All of it in enervating drama and hair-raising action.

Our movies are once again feeding on the real world, just as they did when movies began. It's been a long time since they've looked -- aesthetically -- this healthy.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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