Captain America – ★★★★½
Paul Greengrass’ latest film comes over three and a half years after the underwhelming “WMD drama” Green Zone. The film was even more of a disappointment as it came after the director’s hot sequence of Bourne films, Bloody Sunday and United 93. With Captain Phillips he takes us back to April 2009 and aboard the American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama as it undergoes a hijacking attack from a team of Somali pirates.
Tom Hanks leads the line as the titular character, Captain Richard Phillips. If you know the real world events of the hijacking then obviously you already know what happens to him and his boat so any plot summary is unnecessary. However if, like this reviewer, you don’t know exactly how things played, then we won’t spoil things for you here. Try seeing the film without reading up on the hijacking as it takes a few twists and turns that make for great viewing which would be hard to credit if they weren’t true.
Hanks’ performance is astounding and it would be a massive surprise if he isn’t an Oscar nominee, next spring. While it’s fun to see him at awards shows and on SNL representing Hollywood’s elder statesmen (a club he’s chairman of, Clooney and Pitt alternate as secretary and treasurer), it’s also a bit of a relief to really see him pushing himself. A cursory glance over his acting work in the last decade reveals The Terminal and Charlie Wilson’s War as the only truly laudable work. Unlike the prosthetics-assisted Cloud Atlas [★★★★], this is much more bare bones and at no point does he over-act, instead keeping the character of Phillips very relatable with his simple, logical actions being the truly heroic things on show. We only spend a fleeting moment with him and his wife (“onedayoffilmingisallyou’llgetouttame” Catherine Keener) at the start of the film but it’s enough to provide context for what he’s fighting for. While his producing and humanitarian work is all very commendable, there’s a scene at the very end of the film that reminds you of his more distressing parts in Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away and confirms the man can still really dominate a scene.
You don’t have to know much about the history or politics of Somali pirates to take much from Captain Phillips as, in the tradition of most big Hollywood pictures these days, the motives of the assailants aren’t really explored. So if you’ve read this award-winning Wired article or are just a bit of a pirate fanboy (aaarrr) you may find yourself a little disappointed. The casting team have found first-time actors of Somali-descent from Minneapolis and while we do spend a little bit of time with them in their coastal village, they are all quite one-dimensional characters who just seem driven by the idea of millions of dollars coming their way if they take over the ship. It’s impossible not to think of the Danish film A Hijacking (Kapringen) [★★★★] and how much more time it spent on negotiations, motives and the ideology of asking for something you have no right to. These are vastly different films though, and it’s unfair to really compare them. Together they could make up the ideal Somali hostage double-bill in years to come!
The other film that comes to mind is Argo. The ratcheted up tension that underpins the entire film is hard to maintain but Greengrass manages to keep you on the edge of your seat across three distinct, separate acts. Like Ben Affleck’s film, detractors will have plenty to work with in terms of how it glorifies American ideals (a lot of the US military intervention will be a too schmaltzy for some people) but we go to the cinema to be entertained and films like Captain Phillips, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty take real life events and present them to audiences with a big dollop of American apple pie. Who are we to complain?
It’s never fun when you’re seeing a film that’s being sold on one performance (and apologies if this review has done that), but Hanks is the film’s heart and soul and the level of investment you make in his well being is going to reflect how much you take home from the film. If it’s a return to form for the leading man, the exact same can be said for the director as Greengrass is truly back on top form, here’s hoping he doesn’t take another five years off.
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