Steered by Paul Greengrass’ cinematic intensity, Captain Phillips is a film of screaming, fear, and mounting stakes – or much of Greengrass’ resume. There is formula embedded here, aggressively pitched with intersecting moments of calm. Formula works, now on a foundation of extraordinary true life circumstances which are portrayed as such. Cinematic flair is properly eschewed from the director’s repertoire.
Captain Phillips is an American story, besieged by flags and catapulted into scale as monstrous aircraft carriers descend on a comparatively spindly life boat holding three Somalian pirates and their hijacked cargo: Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks). Phillips is invested in family, a worrisome leader who began the saga aboard a shipping freighter as attacks poured in from opposing coastlines.
Muse (Barkhad Abdi) leads the ammunition spewing pirates, brash and trained only for their heist. They become outsmarted and outmaneuvered, if ultimately proving tactful enough to seize Phillips as their hostage. For days they sail aimlessly toward the Somali coast, intent on ransom as greed spills over into dissent.
Inside the lifeboat, scripting bleeds character, splitting away from rough edged exposition needed to spill plot devices onto the audience. With Phillips established, Billy Ray’s screenplay (adapted from the co-authored A Captain’s Duty) drizzles purpose over these captors. Combative as they are, the film is cautious to parlay reasoning. Phillips injects a kindness toward the youngest, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), a set-up whose pay-off is richer narrative – not a predictable expectation.
This is a cramped feature, spacious with its open sea aerial swivels before being scrunched into the interior of a closed floating container. Rocky cinematography bows to the waves (coupled with close quarter angles) making this a decidedly sea faring voyage. Despite Greengrass’ penchant for letting cameras bob and weave on land, Captain Phillips has discovered the logical application of this frequently coined documentary feel.
Sent into the Hollywood grinder, the story squeezes through with notable embellishments, if to no detriment of tension. Flare ups and heroism are jammed between pages to better sell action, only depleting anxiety amongst those who peered through the book. On screen, this is tactful execution without relying on shock ploys or ill-conceived exaggeration. Any ascension of the events past their reality have fundamental needs on screen.
Stunningly, Captain Phillips performs its true life thriller duties without grotesque, elevating violence. The MPAA levies the PG-13 card against the piece, a designation which drapes this narrative with natural stresses, not those fired from a muzzle. The feature feels potent without descending into near caricature for the sake of a trailer. Chosen material is that persuasive.
Fusing multiple film formats and digital clarity, cinematography as performed by Greengrass norm Barry Ackroyd slips between styles with frequency. Opening with a burst of clear digital, Phillips swings hard into film for sequences of the pirating operation. Differences are integral to the intent, the disc swaying effortlessly in its encoding methodology to preserve both appearances.
There are troublesome spots, including cabin interiors on the ship where source grain (from 16mm) bubbles up into compression blotches. It’s bothersome, and despite high encoding parameters, it appears destined to happen. Pick any Greengrass feature on the format and you’ll find instances of similar visual splotchiness.
A dense, natural chill is exhibited over flesh tones, color grading a hands off approach it would seem. Images peer from the screen with a natural appearance despite a tinge of yellow or blue washing over boat exteriors. Much of the post adjustment comes with contrast, baking the lifeboat’s interior after being casually applied to other scenes. By comparison, black levels brutalize shadow definition for certain pressure situations before being elevated to a typical, satisfying base.
Drifting camerawork can ransack what would otherwise be strikingly rich fidelity, motion blur baked in by default. But for its questionable dilution of high-end material, the disc still punches out absorbing images. Close-ups are generous and as time passes, sweat beads begin pouring. Cameras close in without other options to the delight of the HD enthusiast crowd. Consider it temperamental greatness.
Captain Phillips is an audio disc with everything to offer, and without unnecessary bulking up. Gunshots are presented without amplification or LFE assistance. They’re loud and piercing, with a fierce echo permeating in ship corridors.
Engines rumble to life, and dump themselves into overtime as waves sprout on active seas. LFE is asked to double up during chases and does so with clear distinction between elements. The lifeboat interior is mesmerizing, with an audible, ambient engine hum consistently placed in the underbelly of the mix. This never conquers dialog, which is forced into tighter confines.
This is also a precise mix, down to the effortless implementation of stereo channels at an airport into the subtly of a door closing as rooms are entered. PA calls are vivid as they spread out beyond the center channel, and helicopters become a persistent presence as the film closes down. It’s outstanding work to envelop listeners in this scenario.
A Paul Greengrass supplied commentary means it is worth listening to, always detailed and open about his productions. If you wish to pass, there’s Capturing Captain Phillips, a one hour documentary sent out in three parts. Delving into the real story, offering news clips, and pursuing production details, this is the disc’s highlight outside of the film itself. Only trailers remain.