Captain Phillips Catching Up


Let’s talk about the brilliance that is Captain Phillips though. Not only does it master the art of storytelling with a kinetic energy, but it brings a whole new level to the theme of survivability that is dominating this year’s major contenders. Then again, what else can you expect when you throw Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks together? I mean really.

Before I watched this film, I figured Gravity and 12 Years A Slave would be duking it out for Best Picture come Oscar time. Albeit, I haven’t watched the latter but the buzz surrounding it is enough for me to be first in line when it finally opens in Boston this weekend. After Captain Phillips though, I wouldn’t be surprised if that duel becomes a truel (what that’s not a word).

Anyway. It’s interesting – when I walked out of the theater yesterday after watching Captain Phillips, I kept thinking back to Life of Pi.  Both are incredible survival stories focused on one man and one experience at sea, pulling ahead against all odds on sheer will. Whereas Ang Lee brought all of his focus into the astounding cinematography of the open sea, Greengrass really takes you in with his usual skill, making what could be a completely one-dimensional setting into a diverse landscape. He is a master at relaying exposition, taking us frenetically from each place while exploring the most outer limits of human endurance and resistance.

In both cases, the A+ teamwork between director and cinematographer should be a lesson to all filmmakers.

But what really set this film apart was the ending. Every suspenseful adventure movie I have ever seen follows a tried and true path: the action leads to a breathtaking climax, the bad guys are caught, the good guy survives, the executors of the masterful plan let out sighs of relief and clap each other on the back. Then the scene fades to black and we get a slow-appearing caption “Six months later” as we see our protagonist back home with family and dog, happy and recovering, yet wearied as he reflects on the past trauma and lessons learned.

But no. Not Captain Phillips. I think the most brilliant part of the film, and what sealed Tom Hanks’ Best Actor nomination in my book, was seeing the immediate aftermath. That dead silence in the lifeboat after the blood splatters onto his face, the screams, the twitching. Hysteria, delayed reaction, wordless silence, mind-numbing shock. The extraordinary scene ends in sharp contrast with Hanks’ traumatic state of shock jarring with the nurse’s routine questions and assurances. The emotional intensity he delivers is that much more powerful when it echoes against her cool and habitual demeanor. It is an unprecedented scene. And somehow it offers more resolution than any scripted “some time later” ending ever could.

That ending is what brought the entire movie together for me. I still think Gravity is on a totally different level… But Captain Phillips completely blew me away. It’s different. And different is good, especially when it comes to films. In a year with at least four survival stories in the Oscar race, something needs to stand out. This one stands out. And it is now easily in my top three thus far.

Next weekend I’ll complete the trio with 12 Years of Slave. Stay tuned.


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