Oscar Watch: Captain Phillips

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

More than other major Oscar nominees, Captain Phillips is a film that reveals both the pleasant surprises and the follies of a typical awards season. With six nominations, it is, by all accounts, a great movie.

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Despite Tom Hanks’ snub, Captain Phillips is still a richly deserving Oscar nominee in other categories.

Which is why the film’s nomination for Best Picture is a pleasant surprise. Director Paul Greengrass has been a box office draw thanks to the Jason Bourne films (he directed parts two and three of the trilogy), but I don’t think he gets enough credit for the way he has changed the way Hollywood approaches the Blockbuster action film. Coming from the world of documentaries, his cinema verite, handheld shaky-cam style both inspired and enraged a new generation of filmmakers and audiences. Shaky-cam is now one of the most overused tropes in action filmmaking. When it’s down poorly, it’s unwatchable. But, when it’s done well, it’s nothing less than exhilarating.

Enter Captain Phillips, which capitalizes on Greengrass’ strengths as an artist while ironing out most of his occasionally rough edges. There’s still a lot of shaky-cam, but here it actually helps to convey the nauseous rocking of a ship on the ocean. Combine that with claustrophobic ship hallways and bunkers, and you’ve got a potentially queasy experience. Shaky-cam may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s done well enough here to justify why it put Greengrass on the map in the first place.

Some might say Greengrass was snubbed for a Best Director nomination, but the real snub goes obviously to Tom Hanks. Despite an already tight acting race, his non-nomination still came as a bit of a shock to many. His role as Rich Phillips, the captain of a freight ship overtaken by Somali pirates is nothing short of revelatory. It’s telling that such a veteran actor can still surprise us by playing a very ordinary real-life person. Hanks hardly looks like a movie star here, and that’s why he’s so good. Most people say the true powerhouse acting comes in the film’s later third, but that doesn’t disqualify what comes before as truly brilliant.

Speaking of brilliant, can we talk about Barkhad Abdi, nominated for Best Supporting Actor? The native Somalian non-actor came out of nowhere to stun as the cunning Pirate captain Muse. I’d love to see him win, not only because he’s brilliant, but because it’s so refreshing to see a truly humble man taking in sudden fame and glamor from the perspective of a wide-eyed outsider. He may be considered and underdog, but his performance, as well as his real-life humility, speak volumes.

How often is editing that makes a film harder to watch a good thing? Christopher Rouse, a frequent Greengrass collaborator nominated in past years for The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 pulls it off with aplomb. The queasy claustrophobia of his can’t-look-away quick cutting provides Captain Phillips with much of its energy and personality. It’s hard to argue against the other nominees (particularly American Hustle), but I’m happy to see Rouse recognized once again.

Billy Ray’s adapted screenplay will lose to John Ridley’s 12 Years a Slave, but, again, I’m glad to see it nominated, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for such a visually focused production to seem alive on the page.

Captain Phillips was one of the best films of the year, and it is getting more Oscar recognition that I thought it would. Most people might be focusing on Hanks’ snub, but I’d rather celebrate the strengths the film was deservedly recognized for rather than dwell on what it missed out on. In the end, as always, the work speaks for itself.

 

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