Best Picture Odyssey: “Captain Phillips”

This is going to be a much shorter review than the other ones in this series, for a couple reasons. First, and probably most importantly, I haven’t seen this movie in a very long while. It came out in October, the second earliest release of any of its fellow nominees (bested only by Gravity) and it’s not exactly the kind of film that ingrains itself in the cultural zeitgeist for very long after it comes out. To be honest, I don’t remember it very well. I mean, I remember scenes and shots and moments. But if I had any in-depth opinions on it, they’re long gone. There is another reason that this is going to be a short review, though. I spent most of this week thinking about another movie, one that I liked a lot more than this and one that I have a lot more to say about. That review will go up in a day or so. But anyway. Captain Phillips. Let’s do this.

Its biggest positive attribute is its sustained tension, which is all anyone seemed to talk about with regards to it. And yes, it’s a very tense and intense motion picture. Even if you know how it ends, director Paul Greengrass knows exactly which buttons he needs to push and how to push them. That’s a good thing, because if you break it down, not a whole lot actually happens in Captain Phillips. He’s on a boat, pirates take the boat, pirates take the captain into a lifeboat, captain gets rescued. Greengrass’ frantic camera movement (and Henry Jackman’s effective and underrated score) attempt to make every scene feel like the compound raid at the end of Zero Dark Thirty. When there’s reason to be tense, it works. When there’s not, it feels overbearing. You wish he would just cool it with the handheld camerawork and let the scene breathe. Then again, most of this movie takes place in a tiny lifeboat, where there isn’t any room to breathe, so it’s an appropriate technique. I will say, though, that the ugly grain effect during darker scenes was incredibly irritating to watch on the big screen. I get the aesthetic that Greengrass is going for, but I still found it distracting.

Tom Hanks gives what might be a career-best performance, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Everyone who’s seen the film will tell you the exact same thing, with a particular focus on the last few minutes or so. That final scene is phenomenal, but for most of the film he’s overshadowed by his co-star, Barkhad Abdi, a non-actor who does tremendous work as the leader of Hanks’ beleaguered captors. His shifts from swaggering conqueror to terrified teenager are handled with subtlety and grace. His character is far more interesting than the titular captain, and to its credit the film gives him more screentime than it would have been expected to. The constant parallels between him and Captain Phillips get a little heavy-handed at times, but underneath them you can see Abdi, absolutely killing it in every single one of his scenes. Hanks probably should’ve been nominated for an Oscar for this role, but I’m glad that Abdi got some recognition regardless.

Captain Phillips isn’t going to rock your world, but it’s not mediocre or anything either. It’s a solid film all around, and in a less crowded awards season it mightn’t have been so forgotten. The only reason it was nominated for Best Picture is that it was a lock before it even came out based solely on its subject matter, director, and star. People had this in their predictions all the way back in August. Sometimes the Oscars can be unpredictable, but when they aren’t it’s almost always a self-fulfilling prophecy. You keep telling the world that a film is going to be nominated, voters are going to keep that in mind while filling out ballots. Not that Captain Phillips doesn’t deserve to be here, necessarily. It’s just a great example of how buzz alone can propel a film to multiple nominations, even months after all of it has dried up.

Only one more movie to go, and then this glorious odyssey will be complete. It’s a good one, too.

Next Week: 2/22



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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

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