Captain Phillips (2013) Short Review (PG-13)
Much is being made about the accuracy of this film (being based on the 2009 news event), specifically in how the title character is being portrayed. Tom Hanks plays ‘Captain Phillips’ as a dutiful, protocol oriented, BRAVE sea captain who goes to any lengths to protect his crew from Somali pirates. I think many of the real crew would disagree with that given the fact that they’re suing the shipping company for, in their minds, choosing the bottom line over the safety of their crew. The real life captain has been shown to say “the crew knew what they signed on for” which is echoed in the film where Hanks tells his fearful crew roughly the same thing at a stressful juncture. I can sort of see the crew’s point of view since it has been reported that the cargo ship was 350 miles closer to Somalia than it should have been… and was probably to save the company time and money. That’s okay, though, since I’m judging the film on its own merits and not on its historical accuracy. Heck, ‘Bridge On the River Kwai’s’ World War II Japanese prison camps looked less hospitable than my trips to Wally World. Inaccurate, but that didn’t change the fact that it was still a great movie. ‘Captain Phillips’, THE MOVIE, is pretty good, too, and it’s FAR more credible than the old David lean classics… I felt like I needed to get all of that out of the way.
The story begins with the experienced merchant mariner Richard Phillips in domestic surroundings preparing for another trip around the world at the helm of a cargo ship carrying aid to Africa among other things. Phillips has built a nice life for himself; a nice home, a supportive wife (Catherine Keener in a very small role) with a career of her own and two children (one of whom has left the nest and the other soon to follow). He’s comfortable, but worries aloud about the future of his children and the rapidly changing world in general.
Greengrass contrasts Phillips’ lifestyle with a snippet in the life of Somali pirates. Muse (played by newcomer Barkhard Abdi), one of the eventual pirates is first presented onscreen sleeping in a hut made of sheets of old metal , wood and fiberglass. There is extreme poverty and then there is life in Somalia. The people there don’t make livings. The emphasis is really just survival… Surviving the elements, famine, unhealthy living conditions, not to mention the violence in a completely lawless country ruled by warlords. Case in point, a small caravan of technicals (makeshift combat vehicles) rumbles into Muse’s village to choose a crew with the intent of international piracy on the high seas. they really don’t have a choice in the matter even if they WANT to do it out of some kind of misguided nationalistic pride. The pirates are uneducated, desperate, ‘volunteer’ at gunpoint and subsist almost entirely by chewing on khat, a drug common to the area that practically everyone (at least young Somali males) is on. It’s not a pretty picture. Life is unusually hard in Somalia.
If you pay attention to the news at all, you will have a least a vague idea of what happened (and the eventual outcome). You know just from the movie poster that the Somali pirates will indeed make it onto Phillips’ ship, MV Maersk Alabama. I, myself, was well aware of the 2009 news story and its details, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. Director Paul Greengrass is adept at creating tension. All of his usual tricks are on display here. Along with the quick cut editing and the close ups that may be a little too close up, he uses the moving hand held camera shots that hvae become conventional when it comes to portraying thses types of ‘reality based’ event films.
He also is able to get great performances out of his actors. It’s a given that Hanks will offer up another winning performance, but Greengrass managed to find a group of Somali actors that could play the pirates so convincingly. Hanks will get all of the accolades, but I think the two standouts of the film were Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman (is ‘Barkhad’ a name like John, Mike or Tom in Somalia?). I thought it was interesting that Greengrass didn’t allow the actors portraying the ship’s crew to meet with the Somali actors until their first scene together in the film. The pirates were believable the entire film, so it might have been unnecessary. And I hope I’m not being dismissive of Hanks. If he was terrible, which he never is, the film wouldn’t work. Some of the best bits in the movie, in fact, were when Hanks was acting without speaking. There is more said by his expressions of fear and uncertainty (as when the pirates board the cargo ship) than any of the dialogue ever does. He’s as solid as he ever has been, even with the quasi-Noreastern accent.
Now, here comes the usual “Well, THIS could’ve been better” part of my review. I like to nitpick…. The movie is very well done, but for some reason there were times (especially early on) where the dialogue seemed a little too dumbed down for my tastes. Often characters were stating what they were doing as they were doing them or explaining something that was going to happen as if the director thought the audience wouldn’t be bright enough to follow. Greengrass might have been enamored a little too much with Hanks’ abilities, also. There is one particular scene where the director is trying to illustrate something that is not apparent for most of the film and allows Hanks to cry… Nay, blubber for an extended amount of time. Hanks can start and stop crying like a lightswitch and the audience is ‘treated’ to a full dose of that talent. Personally, I was getting a little antsy during that stretch. I think part of that should have been cut and there seemed to be an absence of any reaction from the rest of the world, not to mention from the families of the ship’s crew. Keener, for instance is never heard from again after the opening moments.
As I said, though, this is a pretty good film. It captures the emotions and mood of what it must really be like to be held hostage by Somali pirates, however unlikely that may be for most people. I think it would work well as sort of a companion piece to Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down. I also think it gives a much more fair look at the military than what you commonly see in Hollywood films. Somalia is a complex problem. It’s one of those countries where the world looks away from their complete societal breakdown, corruption, famine, disease, poverty and the desperation of its people until one of these types of situations occur. The film acknowledges the tragedy of the event, while maintaining that the Soamlis’ actions could never be justified. This isn’t an epic film, but it is an important one. Worth seeing.