Film review: Captain Phillips

Kevin Skrepnek, Contributor Ω

Captain Phillips (Columbia Pictures)

Captain Phillips (Columbia Pictures)

In a traditional movie trope, one would expect that, in a scenario seeing four ordinary men face off against a military superpower, the audience would be rooting for the underdogs.

In Captain Phillips, released Oct. 11, this is not the case. The semi-biographical thriller, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass, is a David vs. Goliath story of a disparate band of Somali pirates up against the combined force of the United States military. Make no mistake, in this story, Goliath wins the day.

Based off Captain Rich Phillips’ book A Captains Duty, the film is a fast-paced retelling of the 2009 attempted hijacking of the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa.

Given that Phillips has lived to tell the tale, it’s not much of a spoiler to say the pirates are not successful in hijacking the massive freighter. But, despite the somewhat foregone conclusion, Hanks puts on a gripping performance and Greengrass keeps the action so tight and suspenseful that the audience will find themselves forgetting that they know how this story ends.

The movie’s opening act, providing a thin veneer of character development to both Phillips and his Somali antagonists, is without a doubt the plot’s weakest point. The dialogue here is clichéd – almost as though it was added on as an afterthought. Thankfully, the action quickly moves the high seas, where the movie, and Hanks, hit their stride.

Director Paul Greengrass’ trademark “shakeycam” style is in full-tilt during most of the movie, giving it a documentary-like feel, not unlike his previous historical drama United 93. While he has received ample criticism for overusing this effect in his past movies, it works especially well in Captain Phillips and helps accentuate the claustrophobic setting on the ships, and the frenzied nature of the action on-screen.

Hanks’ acting ability, particularly in broadcasting raw human emotion, is on full display here as he turns in what is likely his best performance since 2000’s Castaway. The interactions between Phillips and the pirate “captain” are intense, as the audience sees both men stripped down to their barest motivation – survival.

This dialogue stands in stark comparison to the clinical and swift American response to the hijacking – when the first slate-grey US warship arrives, it’s clear that the pirate’s fate is all but sealed. The asymmetrical nature of the standoff serves to showcase the sometimes nonsensical 21st century reality we live in, where ragtag bandits take on the most powerful military in the world.

The pirates themselves are not faceless villains, but fishermen forced into service by a local warlord. In many ways, they are men of circumstance, not unlike the crew of the Maersk Alabama. Repeatedly, when negotiating with the Americans, they emphasize that the hijacking is “just business,” and that they have no affiliation with al Qaeda.

Captain Phillips succeeds where other recent fact-based dramas have failed (Zero Dark Thirty comes to mind). The suspense on-screen gives a human window to a global conflict, with Hanks and the rest of the cast putting on a thrilling and visceral performance.

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