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Captain Phillips (2013)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 1/21/2014

All Ratings out of





Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/23/2014

In my recent review for Fruitvale Station, I mentioned that docudramas and biopics which are released theatrically rarely have the timeliness that their made-for-TV brethren do, and that Fruitvale Station was an exception to this rule. That film focused on a real-life situation which made the news, as did the subsequent riots which broke out as a result of it. However, in this era of 24-hours a day news programming, we often watch stories unfold in real time. This was the case in 2009 when an American cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates. As the ship's captain was taken hostage, U.S. news outlets kept us updated on this harrowing incident which took place over a series of days. This has now been brought to the big screen as Captain Phillips.

As Captain Phillips opens, we are introduced to the titular character, who is played by Tom Hanks. He leaves his home in Delaware and travels to the west coast of Africa, where he will captain the cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. After greeting his crew and conducting an inspection, the trip is soon underway. On the second day of the journey, the crew spots two small vessels approaching the ship. Knowing that there has been pirate activity in the area, Phillips is wary of these boats, and sure enough, he spots armed men in the vehicles. The Alabama moves to top speed, but can't outrun the smaller boats. Despite some evasive maneuvering and the use of fire hoses to deter threats, four pirates, lead by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) board the ship and storm the bridge. Phillips orders most of the crew to hide and he meets the pirates head-on. He is a smart and clever man, and some of his efforts to deter the invaders work, but that is only the beginning of the ordeal, as the pirates take Phillips hostage, planning to return to Somalia.

There have been plenty of movies which focus on people in stressful situations in which the human condition is tested, so what makes Captain Phillips different? First of all, we have the subject matter. Today, when we think of pirates, we either picture Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean or we think of people who illegally download music or movies. It took the story of this hijacking for most of us to understand that the high seas can still be a very dangerous place and that there are roving bands of heavily armed individuals who roam the ocean either attempting to steal things from ships or find things for which the insurance company will pay. The second thing which makes the story of Richard Phillips stand out from the crowd is the way in which the events unfolded. In the event that you didn't follow the story in the news, I don't want to give too much away, but, basically, the story takes a sudden twist when the pirates decide to take a hostage and what had been a very broad story, suddenly becomes very intimate and intense.

Captain Phillips comes to us from Director Paul Greengrass and Writer Billy Ray, neither of which are strangers to intense thrillers, as Greengrass helmed two chapters of the Jason Bourne Trilogy and Ray wrote State of Play and Breach. They have managed to take this ordeal, which lasted several days in real life, and shrink it down to a little over two hours. They do a good job with the first half of the story, as we get an idea of what life aboard the ship is like and then witness the drama of the pirates boarding the ship and attempting to take control. This part of the film plays very well. Despite the fact that we know that the pirates will make it on board, the scenes where they are trying to get along-side the much larger vessel are well-crafted. The pirates' search for the missing crew also plays well and creates tension. The twist comes as a shock and easily propels the film into the second part of the story.

But, this is where Captain Phillips falls apart. The second half of the movie wants to be claustrophobic and intense. One can tell that Greengrass thinks that he is ratcheting up the tension with every scene. However, in actuality, the movie becomes very slow, bloated, and redundant. The U.S. military becomes involved in the situation and the movie treats us to many hero shots of warships, soldiers, and paratroopers -- so much so that I couldn't help but wonder if Michael Bay had suddenly hijacked the director's chair. The finale should be nerve-racking, but we are subjected to one needless shot after another, as things just stretch on-and-on. With Captain Phillips, Greengrass has actually toned down some of his in-your-face editing techniques, but this movie would have actually benefited from them.

These mis-steps in the second half make Captain Phillips a tough film to judge. There's no doubt that the subject matter is interesting and this is one true story which needs no embellishment. The first half is exciting, although I do wish that we could have learned a bit more about Phillips himself, such as how he got this job and why he lives in Delaware if he works in Africa. The botched ending is saved by an emotional final scene with Hanks, but it can't rescue the overall movie. Hanks is good in his role, as is first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who is undeniably menacing as the leader of the pirates. It's the job of a film like Captain Phillips to take the real story and squeeze the drama from it, but when the news stories were actually more harrowing, something has gone wrong.

Captain Phillips...oh take the shot already!...on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good, most notably that orange lifeboat, and the picture is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is good, as the image rarely goes soft, but the depth is only so-so, with the picture appearing flat at times. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are well done, and the track really takes advantage of the various ocean sounds and sounds coming from inside the ship. The same sounds come through the surround speakers as well, and some of them are nicely detailed. Given the gunshots and boats hitting one another, the subwoofer is involved in the action.

The Captain Phillips DVD is very light on extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Paul Greengrass. "Capturing Captain Phillips" (58 minutes) is a three-part documentary which examines the making of the film. The piece opens with comments from the real Captain Richard Phillips and Greengrass, as well as news footage from the real-life event. From there, the featurette moves into the production, taking us on-set to see the cast and crew at work. This footage is peppered with comments from Greengrass, the actors, and crew members, who talk about their experiences. We see the challenges of shooting on the open water. The last part looks at the latter part of the story, featuring Phillips giving his account of what happened. This is accompanied by footage of shooting in a tank.

Review Copyright 2014 by Mike Long