Tom Hanks rarely makes bad movies anymore. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he is so unfathomably rich that he has the luxury of only doing projects that directly appeal to his artistic nature. That’s not to say I’ve liked everything he has been in, but there are only a small number of movies from the past decade of his that I would be able to honestly give a truly negative review. Captain Phillips tells the story of Richard Phillips a commercial shipping captain who had the unenviable task of sailing a big vessel full of cargo near the infamous Somali coast. And of course as “luck” would have it this expedition wound up getting hijacked. In a movie like this you know going in just about everything that is going to happen, at least up until a certain point anyway. If you stay away from spoilers and Wikipedia you might not know whether or not Captain Phillips or his crew survives or if the pirates are caught, but odds are that it is self explanatory based on the sheer logistics of the whole story here. The task here is somehow to make the inevitable still feel riveting and compelling.
Take the scene where the Somali pirates are first attempting to board the ship that they are to eventually take over. Even the aforementioned audience members who stayed away from Wikipedia and resisted the spoilers and whatnot still know that eventually those damn pirates are going to get on that damn ship. If that doesn’t happen there’s really no point to having this movie in the first place. Still with that piece of knowledge established firmly in all of our minds, the scenes with Captain Phillips and his crew members doing everything in their power to keep those Somali pirates from boarding their vessel, and using everything from flare guns to high pressure water cannons in the process, makes for some rather gripping movie watching nonetheless. Credit must be given to director Paul Greengrass for that accomplishment, and of course to all of the actors involved with the task as well.
Captain Phillips here is played by Tom Hanks in a role that basically requires him to be smarter than everyone else for most of the movie. There is one really, really, really great piece of true emotionally draining acting at the very end of the movie, but aside from that he mostly either has to act smart or act scared depending on the circumstances. The only really other big role in the movie with enough time to feel important is by Barkhad Abdi as Abduwali Muse, the leader of the pirate group. Abdi does a great job in what was his debut acting role, but I do worry for his career after this, as I can’t really think of a lot of roles he would appropriate for aside from stuff like this. I look forward to being wrong about that though. Sometimes movies like this (and especially Hanks’ other movie from 2013, Saving Mr. Banks) can just feel like shameless Oscar bait for both the movie and the actors, and most of the time that really drains on my enjoyment of the movie, but I thought there was enough tension and drama here to facilitate an enjoyable watching experience for your average audience member who justifiably couldn’t give two craps about the Oscars or other such things.
This movie does a good job of making the pirates into actual human beings instead of just faceless attackers. In the beginning of the movie you see their tattered little community with a big crowd gathering around a local warlord begging for a spot on the next pirate boat going out so they can get enough money to feed their family. It is a scene very reminiscent of one with the union workers waiting for their turn to work on the docks in ‘On the Waterfront’. Captain Phillips relationship with his captors takes up a big chunk of the movie and is one of its strong points. You of course get the sense that Phillips is able to see these pirates not as heartless terrorists but as disadvantaged teenagers who are just doing the thing that comes most natural to them. In the end you wonder how much solace he would take in a rescue that might result in any of their deaths.
There was an article in the NY times that featured actual crew members of this particular ship criticizing this movie for its glorification of Phillip’s heroics here. They say he was a stubborn and “self righteous” man who willfully sailed his ship into harm’s way. Of course the portrayal of some of the crew members in this movie depicts them in kind of an unfavorable and cowardly light, with Phillips coming off as the strict but compassionate teacher whipping them into order. Naturally I wasn’t there so I can’t tell you for sure one way or the other if the real Captain Phillips was the understanding and ingenuitive hero that this movie portrays him to be. That’s somewhat beside the point though, as my main concern was in whether or not this was a good movie, moreso than if it was an accurate depiction. There is an element to a movie like this in which one of its big purposes is to serve as basically a big budget public relations fluffer for both the power of the US Navy and the bravery of an American Captain. That’s the story that sells tickets anyway.
The most fun scenes in the movie for me were the ones that showed the crew members on the ship using their knowledge of the ship’s layout and some pretty creative sleight of hand to outsmart their would be captors. Those scenes serve a great amount of suspense and excitement. The big climax of this movie definitely deserves a fair amount of lampooning. You basically have what looks to be the entire US Navy versus four underfed Somali teenagers in a plastic dingy, complete with a giant chase scene with dramatic thumping music. You can go ahead and take a wild guess as to who comes out on top of that one. That bit of business aside though I give this movie a decent recommendation. I don’t think it is half as great as a lot of the praise it is getting in as much as I think this film will probably not stand the test of time, but it is certainly good enough to deserve a rental, especially if you’re a fan of these types of films.
Captain Phillips gets a three out of five: SATISFYING.