What a launch: Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips sees its official world premiere when it opens the New York Film Festival. Then, it crosses two oceans, opening the BFI London Film Festival on October 9 and the Tokyo International Film Festival on October 17. The theatrical rollout in the States begins October 11.
Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan: “Based on the true story of a 2009 attack by Somali pirates on a U.S. container ship, the film stars Tom Hanks as the titular captain, who goes toe-to-toe with the clever, determined pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) in an attempt to save both his crew and his bounty. Greengrass tells the story in a manner that recalls both Zero Dark Thirty and his own September 11 docudrama United 93, shooting the action with a documentary-like realism and employing chronological, cross-cut ruthlessness to drive momentum.”
Time Out New York‘s David Fear notes that “like the similar Danish film A Hijacking, the use of toggling perspectives—in this case, a lifeboat where Hanks is held captive and a military envoy that has orders to destroy it if necessary—ratchets the tension to near-unbearable levels. Greengrass, thankfully, tones down his usual shaky-cam, epilepsy-inducing editing style and lets the story’s forward momentum carry the weight, a move that makes a vast difference: You walk away from Captain Phillips shaken not by a filmmaker’s bag of tricks but by his virtuosity in placing you in the middle of another man’s waking nightmare.”
“The filmmaking is excellent just as you’ve come to expect from Mr. Greengrass,” grants Martin Tsai in the Critic’s Notebook, “so let’s nitpick on thematic problems critics will likely let slide: Billy Ray’s screenplay is completely plot-driven. The opening expository scenes juxtapose Mr. Phillips’s and the pirates’ parallel home lives, and the dueling perspectives hint at human interest and moral complexity. But once the pirates are aboard the Maersk Alabama, any semblance of nuance is out the window and into the sea. What begins as a necessary evil some Somalians must commit in order to survive somehow evolves into full-blown greed and anti-American reprisal. How it gets there is anyone’s guess; but if he meant to insinuate that Mr. Phillips’s patronizing peace offering was the catalyst, Mr. Ray surely didn’t connect all the dots.”
“Politically conscious but emotionally underwhelming,” agrees Aaron Hillis, writing in the Voice, “but Tom Hanks—chewing through a Boston accent as the besieged Phillips—is absolutely unsinkable.”
Variety‘s Scott Foundas: “Where Greengrass’s earlier true-life tales [Bloody Sunday (2002), United 93 (2006)] were principally group studies, his latest is very much a tale of two captains—Phillips on the one hand, and the pirate leader Muse (Abdi) on the other. Though he himself is but a low-ranking functionary in a vast piracy hierarchy, Muse is head honcho on the Alabama, and Abdi (a Somali-born American emigre making his film debut) plays the role with the hungry intensity of an oppressed man taking his turn at being the oppressor. In a movie that affords little dimensionality to its characters, Abdi finds notes to play you scarcely realized were there, until this reedy young man with jutting brow looms as large as Othello.”
“Greengrass is obviously no colonist… but his portrayal here of a noble white officer suffering at the hands of insidious black pirates smacks of Rudyard Kipling,” suggests Alonso Duralde at TheWrap.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy notes that “for a story that pits locals versus Americans in the Middle East and boasts a climax that involves Navy SEALs, U.S. choppers and warships, the taut screenplay by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, The Hunger Games) essentially makes no mention of religion, al-Qaida or the war on terror, concentrating on the more essential reality of impoverished young men, some of them fishermen, pushed to extreme measures by the big bucks bandit bosses offer for Western hostages, for whom they can demand millions. It’s ‘just business,’ as so many criminals throughout history have said.”
Captain Phillips “does justice to the material even while playing too conscientiously by the book,” argues Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “For better or worse, Greengrass’s virtuous approach is a think piece on imperialism that’s been smuggled into commercial escapism. ‘I know how to handle America,’ the head kidnapper asserts. The outcome, it seems, suggests that America feels the same way about him.”
In Contention‘s Kristopher Tapley praises the “thrilling editing from Oscar-winner Christopher Rouse. The 135-minute running time just clicks by. It’s not breakneck pacing but it feels expertly assembled, unfolding at just the right rate. Barry Ackroyd’s photography puts you right in the middle of the action while the quality of the sound design—hugely important for a film that takes place at sea—can’t be overstated. Henry Jackman’s score thrills and soars in equal measure and could also be something to watch for in an always unpredictable category. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re talking about United 93 at sea, more or less, but this is an even better procedural.”
Updates, 9/27: Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey on Hanks: “This is a performance that sneaks up on you; it appears at first to be one of his standard Everyman turns, perhaps even less than that, as it involves a Northeastern accent that is, initially at least, a little on the dodgy side. (Is there any dialect that’s more jarring to hear from a non-native?) Greengrass’ procedural, no-nonsense style means it’s not a film of big Acting Moments, though there’s something indescribable about the look in Hanks’s eyes as he watches, helplessly, while the ladder attaches and these men board his ship. But in [the] closing scenes, we see the accumulation of this performance, and what it has been working towards—a symphony of overwhelming emotion and total surrender to the character.”
“The climax is like a vise that keeps tightening as options run out, and you can’t believe how often your sympathies shift between Phillips and his hapless captors,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein. “And in what kidnapping thriller has the denouement—it’s a medical exam—been even more overpowering than the action climax?”
For the Playlist‘s Rodrigo Perez, “in the fall sweepstakes to create the most gripping, immersive and emotionally resonant survival tale, Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips has the surprisingly thematically similar Gravity licked.”
Updates, 9/28: “Greengrass’s latest recreation of recent history’s most vividly violent events is not—as its awkward opening moments might first suggest—just another Hollywood celebration of American bravado at the expense of faceless third-world foreigners,” writes David Ehrlich at Film.com. “On the contrary, Captain Phillips is not only a masterful action movie that breathlessly and believably re-stages a tense standoff at sea, but a resonant portrait of systemized financial imbalance trickling down into the water. While this is arguably Greengrass’s best film, it’s almost certainly his most urgent.”
“As a bravura piece of man-made action filmmaking in the age of CGI,” writes Tom Hall at Hammer to Nail, “Captain Phillips is as taut and engaging a thriller as could be imagined, a movie about real people in peril that delivers on every level.”
David D’Arcy at Artinfo: “Greengrass shows that he can transform non-professional Somalis from Minneapolis into fearsome thugs. (Unfortunately, so can al-Shabab.) He can also film film magnificently at sea, in water, and in tight enclosed spaces. Hanks takes you into the soul of a man who sees his life ending as khat-chewing killers seem fated to lose control of the guns they point at him.”
The Telegraph‘s David Gritten: “Hanks’s tearful final scenes, portraying a relieved man in deep shock, are very fine: it’s the most raw, emotional acting he’s ever delivered on screen.”
Updates, 10/5: Greengrass “has never before made anything this propagandistic or this characterless,” argues Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. “His portrayal of the enormous United States military operation to free Phillips from his captors has the calm technological blankness of a Navy commercial, without the 1970s waka-waka guitar. I can’t decide if there’s meant to be anything sardonic about the presentation of the asymmetrical conflict in Captain Phillips: Billions of dollars of cutting-edge military hardware and hundreds of corn-fed, gym-toned Americans on one side, four malnourished men with black-market Kalashnikovs on the other. But I kind of think there isn’t.”
“As a thriller, Captain Phillips is undeniably top-notch,” grants Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door. “But there’s only so much that expert thriller mechanics can do to camouflage the shallowness of Billy Ray’s screenplay.”
At the L, Jesse Hassenger writes that “Greengrass movies always strike me as procedure-light: handheld shots of guys in command centers speaking somewhat less idiotically than they do in their higher-octane summer-movie equivalents. Still, Hanks and Abdi bring plenty of human interest to the behavior side.”
At Movies.com, Katie Calautti warns that “until you’ve sat through all 134 minutes, you won’t quite understand what it means to be physically exhausted by a movie. This is immersive filmmaking at its finest.”
Updates, 10/13: “Handmaiden of the hegemon or stealth critic of the same?” asks Elbert Ventura at Reverse Shot. “There is evidence for each side in the case against Paul Greengrass…. If United 93 was a context-free, ‘never forget’ thrill ride, The Bourne Ultimatum offered the blowback corrective, a critique later deepened and made explicit by the ham-handed, Baghdad-set Green Zone. Captain Phillips, Greengrass’s latest, has already been derided by some as pro-military propaganda—and hailed by others as a complex interrogation of power and powerlessness. That such opposed responses can be read in the same film is less a sign of its richness than of Greengrass’s talent for making lack of commitment—even intellectual incoherence—look like artful ambiguity.”
Still, “Greengrass is arguably the best action director working today,” writes J. Hoberman at Artinfo, and Captain Phillips “only strengthens the case.”
More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5), Josef Braun, Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 3.5/4), Dave Calhoun (Time Out London, 4/5), Richard Corliss (Time), Manohla Dargis (NYT), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, B), Cheryl Eddy (San Francisco Bay Guardian), Jesse Hassenger (L), Glenn Heath Jr. (Philadelphia Weekly), Erik Henriksen (Stranger), Ambrose Heron, Robert Horton (Herald), Ryan Kearney (New Republic), Anthony Lane (New Yorker), Richard Lawson (Atlantic), Guy Lodge (HitFix), Christopher Orr (Atlantic), Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, A), Keith Phipps (Dissolve, 4.5/5), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Nicolas Rapold (L), Jonathan Romney (Film Comment), Dana Stevens (Slate), and Susan Wloszczyna (RogerEbert.com, 3/4).
Updates, 10/16: Nicolas Rapold at the L: “Billy Ray’s screenplay, adapted from the real Phillips’s book A Captain’s Duty, enters a different phase when the cavalry arrives; the US military, responding to distress calls in this no-man’s-land off the shore of government-free Somalia. Here a familiar problem arises: a proceduralist like Greengrass is fascinated by The Professionals, lending these granite-faced (and poker-faced) elite forces an inevitable heroism. But after the long day of the hijacking comes a longer night, with an even more cramped setting, and, in what perhaps clinches the movie, Hanks exposed as a vulnerable body like any other.”
Viewing (3’45”). The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard interviews Greengrass.
Updates, 10/18: The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw: “This is a quasi-war movie set in peacetime: in some ways, a post-9/11 film, perhaps specifically a salve to the memory of USS Cole in 2000. America fights back, but against a new enemy. Globalization and poverty are incubating these attacks. All civilian shipping can do is wait for the next assault.”
“Captain Phillips has everything that’s to be expected in a Greengrass film, except tension,” finds Kiva Reardon at the Loop. And for the Financial Times‘ Antonia Quirke, “the film never quite has the ring of truth. You continually suspect that Greengrass has used the facts as much as they help and then departed from them…. Cinema has always happily treated history as a mere prop room – but movies that come on very loudly like the truth yet are not resolutely truthful (Zero Dark Thirty, Argo) feel particularly disappointing and corrupt.”
On that note, at Vulture, Lindsey Weber‘s spotted yesterday’s Reddit AMA in which “Greengrass spoke to allegations from the real-life crew of the Maersk Alabama that his film deviated from the actual story.”