As a rule, I'm not a huge fan of ripped-from-the-headlines motion pictures. Such topical treatments usually twist facts and invent situations for dramatic impact, shamelessly exploit their subjects for financial gain, and trade artistry for sensationalism. 'Captain Phillips,' however, does none of those things. Accurate, faithful, uncompromising, meticulously produced, and executed with style and grace, this riveting examination of a horrific high seas incident involving ruthless pirates and a brave crew under siege not only respects the event's integrity, but also paints a realistic portrait of its title character, inspiring admiration without canonization. As depicted here, Captain Phillips the man is courageous, crafty, and compassionate, but he's also just doing his job to the best of his ability under extraordinary circumstances and tremendous stress and strain. 'Captain Phillips' the film examines his struggles with refreshing honesty and grit, and its forthright approach instantly connects us to the story.
It's also an excellent high-voltage thriller. Maintaining suspense when chronicling a widely publicized affair that almost everyone in the U.S. closely followed as it unfolded almost four years ago is no easy task, but director Paul Greengrass - who's no stranger to such a challenge, having previously helmed a similar and far more devastating true-life tale, 'United 93' - wisely chooses not to build tension around the story's well-known outcome. Instead, he focuses attention on the little-known details that lead to the resolution, all the while injecting the same sense of urgency and desperation that distinguish his best-known films, 'The Bourne Supremacy' and 'The Bourne Ultimatum.' Like those two blockbusters, 'Captain Phillips' is both thoughtful and exciting, and more substantive than it appears on the surface.
Based on the memoir by Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, the film chronicles the seizure of a large container ship en route from Oman to Kenya by a quartet of desperate Somali pirates who make outrageous demands, terrorize the crew, and spark an international rescue mission led by a team of U.S. Navy SEALS. Phillips, superbly played by Tom Hanks, tries to simultaneously placate, outwit, and foil the greedy, trigger-happy thugs, while protecting his fellow seamen and precious cargo. It's a simple and straightforward good-vs.-evil yarn presented in semi-documentary fashion, but 'Captain Phillips' is far from a just-the-facts-ma'am action flick. Early on, we witness the desperate plight of the Somali people and learn how their intense desire to escape their wretched existence drives many into a life of crime. Such vital information becomes more relevant as the movie progresses, as we view the incident through both American and Somali eyes. Tensions mount not only between Phillips and the pirates, but also between the pirates themselves, as ego and ideological clashes threaten to undermine their nefarious mission. Of course we always root for the Americans to emerge victorious, but Greengrass makes sure we also recognize the plight of the Somali people and sympathize with them as well.
Though the film doesn't take artistic license with Phillips' story, it doesn't state all the facts. Some crew members have claimed Captain Phillips, in an effort to save time and money, stubbornly ignored strict piracy warnings advising ships to remain at least 600 miles off the Somali coast (the MV Maersk Alabama was reportedly less than 250 miles from shore when it was assaulted), thus knowingly putting the crew in harm's way. Phillips doesn't deny the charges, but it's a shame the film doesn't address them. Such a defiant act wouldn't irreparably color our view of Phillips, but it would lend his character more dimension and a bit of ambiguity. It would also add an extra layer of tension to the proceedings, as Phillips would undoubtedly wrestle with matters of conscience throughout the ordeal.
Much like the ocean tide, Greengrass employs an ebb and flow style of pacing, which enhances realism. Lesser directors would hurtle us headlong toward the climax, but Greengrass takes his time, interspersing rushes of adrenaline with bits of character and subtle nuances that crystallize motivations. It's tough to condense a five-day crisis down to 134 minutes, but the Oscar-nominated screenplay by Billy Ray ('The Hunger Games') does a nice job of defining character and atmosphere and weaving them into the narrative's fabric. Wisely, Greengrass shot most of the film on location on the open sea, which gives the action marvelous authenticity and heightens the prevailing sense of foreboding. Though I've never liked the handheld camerawork the director tends to favor, the herky-jerky style works well in 'Captain Phillips,' both as a means of reinforcing the nautical setting and depicting the unpredictability and combustibility of the situation, even if the shakiness is overdone from time to time. (I must admit, there were occasions when I felt a little seasick.) Henry Jackman's highly effective score also pumps up the movie's pulse rate, but it, too, occasionally overwhelms the story.
Hanks files a disarmingly natural portrayal that makes us believe he truly is Captain Phillips. Much of the time he silently reacts to his captors, and his expressions are perfectly pitched, mixing fear with determination. We can see the wheels turning inside his head as he struggles to gain an edge, hatch a plan, or manipulate the bickering pirates. His emotional release after the standoff concludes is supremely affecting, as is his state of shock during a later medical exam. In the past, I've felt Hanks has been overhyped and oversold as a great actor, but he's brilliant here, and it's a shame he wasn't rewarded with an Oscar nomination. He certainly deserved one.
All the Somali actors, all of whom hail from Minneapolis and are making their film debuts in 'Captain Phillips,' perform like seasoned pros and create a menacing presence that makes an indelible imprint on the screen. The pirates are not uncomplicated characters, yet the actors seem to know intuitively what makes them tick, and the impact of their powerful, unaffected portrayals cannot be overestimated. Barkhad Abdi as the gang leader is especially strong, and his scenes with Hanks crackle with the kind of electricity usually reserved for head-to-head battles between legends. Thankfully, the Academy got this one right and bestowed upon him a well-earned Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Though Captain Phillips himself may always be a controversial figure, the film that bears his name will remain a testament to grace under pressure, steely nerves, never-say-die attitudes, and, most importantly, superior filmmaking for decades to come. It's quite a story and it's been given quite a treatment.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Captain Phillips' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a glossy sleeve. A 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray disc, standard-def DVD, along with a leaflet that provides an access code to download the Digital HD Ultraviolet digital copy sit snugly inside the case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, a promo for Sony's Ultra 4K TV, followed by previews for 'The Monuments Men,' 'American Hustle,' and 'Last Vegas' precede the static menu with music.
'Captain Phillips' looks fantastic on Blu-ray, with a "mastered in 4K" 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that puts us up on deck with the principals and immerses us in their plight. Exceptional contrast and clarity, marvelous depth of field, and razor sharp close-ups set this effort apart from other new releases and make 'Captain Phillips' a thrilling visual experience. Not a stitch of grain could be detected on the pristine print, which not only exhibits no marks or scratches, but also brims with a rare vitality that makes the image appear truly alive. Perfectly modulated color maintains the picture's natural feel, but the hues never look wan or bland. The blue of the sky and ocean water, the bold orange of the life vessel, and Hanks' light turquoise shirt all exude a wonderful vibrancy and supply additional elements of interest to the frame. Rich, deep black levels add welcome weight, and even when the camera ventures into the ship's dark bowels details aren't obscured. Whites are bright, but never bloom, and fleshtones are spot-on.
Detail is superb across the board, from the long shots of the buffeted skiff navigating potent swells as it pursues the cargo ship to the close-ups of sweat-drenched, bug-eyed pirates and their heavy artillery. A hint of crush could be detected in the murkiest scenes, but no noise or banding rear their ugly heads, and no digital enhancements muck up the works either. 'Captain Phillips' was shot in difficult conditions and often in cramped quarters, but it looks like a million bucks, and this superior rendering - with or without one of Sony's Ultra 4K TVs - should please even the most discriminating videophile.
An aggressive, perfectly mixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track greatly enhances the 'Captain Phillips' viewing experience, thrusting us into the epicenter of the crisis and keeping us aurally engaged throughout the film's entire running time. Surround activity is practically non-stop, with ambient effects, directional accents, and the pulsating strains of Henry Jackman's score pouring out of the rear speakers. At times, especially as the drama crescendos before the climax, the confluence of tone can be a bit overwhelming (occasionally less could be more), but the sound is so precisely constructed and meticulously funneled into its respective receptacles, it's tough to make a case against it. Rarely do multi-channel tracks excite me as much as this one did, and its impeccable clarity, exceptional dynamic range, and lack of any distortion or imperfection make it a joy to listen to.
Plenty of competing elements threaten to turn this mix into a cacophonous mess, but such a calamity never occurs. The sound is clean, bright, and well modulated, with heavy, thumping bass and lots of nuance. When the lifeboat launches into the water you can feel the impact. When the pirates fire their AK-47s, the crisp rat-a-tat-tats make you jump. Amazingly, dialogue is perfectly prioritized; not a single word is lost and each line is easily comprehendible.
Rarely do I feel compelled to rave about audio, but the lossless 'Captain Phillips' track ranks with the best in the field. It's no wonder it received Oscar nominations in the Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing categories, and the good news is everything that impressed industry professionals theatrically has been flawlessly transferred to the home environment.
A few noteworthy extras round out this Blu-ray release.
'Captain Phillips' is one of the best true-life adaptations in recent memory and justly earns its six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. With uncompromising grit and laser focus, director Paul Greengrass tells a terrifying tale with breathtaking style, yet never neglects the subtleties of character and underlying issues that lend the story substance and humanity. Tom Hanks embodies the title character, filing a performance that ranks among his best, and Barkhad Abdi as the chief pirate makes a formidable adversary in a dazzling debut. Sony's top-notch Blu-ray presentation immerses us in the action, thanks to a mastered in 4K video transfer that's so crisp and vibrant we feel like one of the crew, and perfectly mixed and executed audio that puts the surround in surround sound. 'Captain Phillips' won't bring home the Best Picture prize on Oscar night, but this taut, riveting portrait of conflict and survival still stands as one of the year's most noteworthy and involving films. Highly recommended.