Monday, December 15, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass can't sit still. From his two hyperactive entries in the Bourne franchise, to his nervy September 11 dramatization United 93, to his unappreciated Iraq War docudrama Green Zone, the filmmaker's work is characterized most of all by a roving impatience, with frantic cutting and jittery handheld camerawork. It's a kinetic approach that sacrifices cleanliness for liveliness, but if it often gets your blood pumping, it can occasionally feel jumbled and chaotic, as though the ravenous director is struggling to sate his appetite to cover as much spatial territory as possible. Yet Greengrass' restlessness makes him ideally suited to make Captain Phillips, his gripping fact-based account of the war of wills and wits between an American merchantman and the Somali pirates who hijack his ship. Because the film transpires in a bare minimum of cramped locations—first Phillips' lone freighter stranded in the vast ocean, then a tiny lifeboat floating even more helplessly amid the waves—it is necessarily claustrophobic. But rather than being hamstrung by such a constrained space, Greengrass finds himself liberated. Unable to overextend himself in terms of breadth, he opts instead for depth, continuously amping up the energy even though there is nowhere for his camera to go. Watching the movie, you won't be able to escape either.

In one of the least showy and most powerful performances of his career, Tom Hanks plays the titular Phillips as a brusque, inherently competent commander, a man who instinctively knows every nook and cranny of his vessel, the Maersk Alabama, even if he's less adept at ingratiating himself with his crew. His assignment is to shepherd the Maersk and its unspecified cargo around the Horn of Africa. It's a routine job, and Phillips' terse professionalism—immediately upon stepping aboard, he instructs his first mate to tighten some of the ship's security mechanisms without offering so much as a greeting—creates the impression that he's prepared for anything. He's not.

Specifically, fate intervenes in the form of Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a rail-thin Somali armed with a dangerous combination of intelligence and lethality, not to mention a cache of semi-automatic weapons. When we first meet Muse (in one of the movie's few land-bound scenes), he appears to be something of a malcontent, but like Phillips, he exudes proficiency and demands loyalty. He is also, of course, a pirate, though that term is less villainous than simply occupational. As with Phillips, Muse has superiors he must satisfy, and he similarly performs his duties with determination and skill. And so, he leads a pair of motorized skiffs into the Indian Ocean and sets his sights on a solitary unarmed freighter called the Maersk.

Captain Phillips, then, is a movie about men at work. Circumstances may have made enemies of Phillips and Muse, but it's only because they both have jobs to do. This is not to suggest that Greengrass is forgiving of Muse's vocation, merely that he acknowledges its greater context; Muse may in part be a product of circumstance, but he's also ruthless and greedy, and Abdi adroitly plays up his menace even as he shades it with self-doubt. Besides, Greengrass is an action maestro, not an academic, and Captain Phillips is not some arch sociopolitical treatise on global economic disparities. It is, first and foremost, a thriller, and once Muse and his confederates board the Maersk—after an exhilarating sequence in which they attempt to mount a ladder alongside the ship while dodging blasts from fire hoses—any metaphorical overtones wash away, and we're left with two men and their narrow objectives. Muse just wants to get paid. Phillips just wants to survive.

What will happen? If you followed the news at the time of the hijacking in 2009, you likely know the answer. Yet this foreknowledge doesn't prevent Captain Phillips from being indecently suspenseful. Greengrass generates extraordinary tension just from chronicling the hijacking's logistical challenges—Check the engine room! Hide in the galley! Watch out for that glass!—and once Phillips finds himself on that lifeboat with nothing but his brains to protect him, the stakes feel enormous. But what's truly remarkable about the movie's sustained level of suspense is just how little actual action it contains. Most of its second half involves little more than men barking into walkie-talkies and staring at LED screens, yet Greengrass plays up the claustrophobia such that even the most minimal movements have maximum impact. Eventually, the U.S. Navy shows up (led by Max Martini, authentically authoritative), and as it attempts to both negotiate with and undermine the pirates, Captain Phillips turns into history's most momentous game of Stratego. The success of every task, from establishing a tow line to stealthily installing listening devices on the lifeboat, feels like it could be the literal difference between Phillips' life and his death.

Special mention must be made of the film's coda. You would think, after subjecting you to such unrelenting anxiety, that Greengrass might grant you a small measure of release. He's not so inclined, but his refusal feels less sadistic than bluntly honest. The movie's final scene is a knockout, with Hanks delivering the most nakedly emotional acting of his entire career. And overall, Captain Phillips is a wrenching, ultimately exhausting experience, one that first sucks you in and then wrings you out. In this, it's wholly separate from Greengrass' sturdy entries in the Bourne franchise. Those movies were similarly breathless, but when they ended, they left you wanting more. This one just leaves you in tears.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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