The final fifteen minutes of Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips are among the most intense I have seen in any movie in years (particularly the final scene). Certainly, the whole 134 minutes—though it feels like 90 minutes or less—is intense. But its climax and catharsis are breathtaking. It left me feeling shaken, inspired, grieved, and shell shocked, with a distinct sense of "what just happened?!"
And that's an all-too-rare feeling in movies today.
I felt the same way seven years ago when I sat in a theater watching another film by Paul Greengrass that ended with a breathless bang and a similar, albeit more tragic, climactic catharsis: United 93. That film, one of the decade's best, left me so shaken I could hardly move from my seat when the credits began to roll.
The final moments of Captain Phillips include a career-best acting moment from Tom Hanks, but its final scene also reminded me of what Paul Schrader, in Transcendental Style in Film, calls stasis: the moment at the end of the film (usually the last shot) when the "abundant," loud, and chaotic give way to "sparse," quiet, and contemplative finality. To put it another way: Captain Phillips is hardly Ozu in form or in content. But the way it ends certainly leads the viewer to place of stasis that reminds one of the Japanese director's work: "a frozen view of life," notes Schrader, "which does not resolve the disparity but transcends it."
The amazing thing is that Captain Phillips, like United 93, is based on a true story that most of the audience knows. That a story with a known ending can be so gripping—even sublime—is a testament both to the filmmakers' talents and film's inherent power to narrate real stories more viscerally than the newspaper or a Wikipedia page.
Captain Phillips depicts the 2009 events surrounding the hijacking by Somali pirates of the Maersk Alabama and the subsequent kidnapping-for-ransom of the ship's merchant marine captain, Richard Phillips (Hanks). Aside from a puzzling stateside prologue in which Catherine Keener makes a brief cameo as Phillips' wife, the film takes place entirely at sea in the dangerous waters off the coast of Somalia.
Phillips has a happier ending than United 93, but the two films have a striking amount in common. Both are set mostly in confined, claustrophobic transportation spaces—a lifeboat and an airplane—with limited contact with the outside world. Both feature largely unknown casts (aside from Hanks). Both are made in a cinéma vérité style of gritty, jittery realism. Both get very loud—nay, cacophonous—in their final, heart-stopping minutes. And both showcase the violent clashes of cultures, as well as the might of the American military industrial complex.
Both United 93 and Captain Phillips also feature two specific people groups engaged in a battle that acts as a proxy for a much larger, more complex existential collision. They are random airline passengers whose fates collide with those of bin Laden's recruits, or they are everyday sailors doing their jobs one minute and fending off warlord-employed Somali hijackers the next.