"Captain Phillips," the high-seas hostage drama, is tense, from start to finish. At times, almost unbearably so.
Based on the real-life story of the 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship off the coast of Somalia, Tom Hanks stars as Captain Richard Phillips, commanding officer of the Maersk Alabama and the man responsible for keeping his crew safe when they're boarded by Somali pirates led by their own no-nonsense captain, Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi).
Between "Gravity," "Prisoners" and now director Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips," there's been a lot of white-knuckle gripping of armrests going on at movie theatres lately. So just how nerve-wracking do things get in "Captain Phillips," and where does all that tension come from?
The Pre-Departure Inspection:
Since we know this is no routine three-hour tour, when Hanks' Phillips walks the deck of the Alabama checking the locks on the ship's "pirate cages" and scanning emails warning of increased attacks along their route, there's an added undercurrent of tension from the very beginning. But so far, nobody's clutching the armrests.
The Hijacking of the Alabama:
Unless you're a big fan of stilted husband/wife interaction, "Captain Phillips" doesn't really get going until Phillips, Muse and their respective crews cross paths out on the water. Thanks to Greengrass and his longtime cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's now-signature visual style, those initial hijacking scenes are immediately gripping, as the crew attempts to fend off the pirates with nothing more than high-powered hoses. And even something as simple as watching two small blips on a radar screen becomes fraught with tension.
Captain Phillips and the Pirate Captain:
When the pirates do make it on board, it sets off a struggle for control of the ship between Phillips, who's trying to look out for his crew, and Muse, who's trying to maintain control of his. And so, the two captains test each other while the armed pirates hunt through the darkened ship for potential hostages, and the question of who's running the show becomes just as anxiety-inducing as whether or not they'll find the rest of the Alabama's crew. For all the well-deserved praise for Hanks, the newcomer Abdi more than holds his own in their high-stakes staring contests.
The US Navy Takes Over:
Pretty quickly, it's just Phillips and the pirates crammed into a small lifeboat, and that's when the tensions really ratchet up. That's also when the US Navy gets involved, and it doesn't take much familiarity with the real-life story to know the ensuing stand-off won't end well. But while the potential outcomes dwindle, the anxiety levels actually rise, thanks to Greengrass' measured treatment of the Somali pirates. While he stops short of asking audiences to sympathize with Muse and his crew, he does humanize them enough to make us invested in something other than just whether Hanks' Phillips makes it out alive. And when it's all finally over, it's not just Hanks who's left shaking.
Shaky-Cam on the High Seas:
The script is only part of the nerve-wracking experience, for anyone anxious about the stomach-turning prospect of Greengrass taking his "shaky-cam" aesthetic onto a boat -- especially when his signature style is already infamous for inducing motion sickness on dry land. Even static shots of the Alabama's engine room bob and weave, but it works for the subject matter, and is far more distracting when used in the various control rooms than the open ocean scenes. Even so, you can safely leave the Dramamine at home. There's a greater chance of becoming queasy from one of the handful of hokey lines meant to underscore the difference between Somalia and America.
Based on a "True Story":
Give any real-life tale the Hollywood treatment, even one as inherently dramatic as the one behind "Captain Phillips," and you know there's going to be some tension between reality and fiction. In this case, it's the smoothing over of claims by the Alabama crew that Phillips ignored warnings to put a safer distance between the ship and the Somali coast in order to allegedly shorten the trip and save money. Instead, Hanks' Phillips is a more clear-cut hero, and while that makes audience's rooting interests much less complicated, a little more nuance from the script could have taken "Captain Phillips" from a well-executed and extremely intense drama to an Oscar-worthy one.