The Art of Mounting Tension

Captain Phillips stands as a serious awards contender, while not sacrificng style for substance

I tend to avoid a lot of films with the ‘based on a true story’ tagline splashed across the page, for a number of reasons. Firstly, cynics in the movie world use this as an excuse to pick over the product with a fine tooth comb, salivating at the idea of poking mistakes and lapses in fact and fiction. When I go to a movie, more often than not, I want to let the film speak for itself. If I am entertained and feel as if my 12 dollar ticket was well spent, than minute details between what really happened and what has been adapted into film can be forgiven on my part. At the end of the day, the film industry is about selling tickets and making money. If it was a documentary, I could see the argument, but ‘based on’, means exactly that. Based.
With that gripe out of the way, let me get into what was I think one of the strongest films of the year thus far. Tom Hanks reaffirmed what we long knew, that he is a powerhouse actor that sits in a category with few to any equals. His performance as Captain Richard Phillips gives him the tapestry to show an entire range of emotions, and to use an old sports cliche, he hits it out of the park.
For those who don’t know, the film is based on the real life hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009. The role of the leader of the hijackers, Abduwali Muse, was played brilliantly by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who really portrayed the desperation of the somehow sympathetic ringleader.
My highest compliment I can give the film, outside of the strong award worthy performances of Hanks and Abdi, was the films subtle build of tension. From the first moment the vessel is presented with the threat of hijacking, to the white knuckle conclusion, director Paul Greengrass and crew have mastered the fine art of mounting tension, pulling the strings where they should, and raising levels to a fever pitch when appropriate.
All that said, Captain Phillips won’t be for everyone. At 2 hours and 14 minutes in length, those who have no interest in survival based thrillers or hijackings will find this one a bit of a struggle to sit through, but given the widespread appeal of Hanks and the fantastic marketing effort put into the film, I see those people being the minority.
I went into the film as an impartial movie-goer, not a historian looking to hollow out plot holes. In that regard, looking at the film as a blank slate to be filled in by the performances of the actors, I was thoroughly satisfied. This is Hanks’s finest work since 2004’s sleeper contender The Terminal, and with the equally appealing Saving Ms. Banks on the docket later this year, he seems a shoe-in for what will be his first Oscar nod in 13 years.
If you live for solid storytelling, inspired acting and script that doesn’t cut corners to build tension, than Captain Phillips just might be worth the price of admission.

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