Overview: Captain Phillips turns the true story of the hijacking of a U.S. container ship by a crew of Somali pirates into a fast-paced thriller. 2013; Rated PG-13; 134 minutes.
WHY Did the Film Start This Way?: Captain Phillips does not start strong. We meet Richard Phillips – the ship’s captain and the film’s main character- on land with his family. In the car on the way to the ship, Phillips has a stupid conversation with his wife. The two exchange cheesy, sentimental musings about their children and the “way the world is changing.” I understand the logic behind this scene: “Ah, the world is in shambles, so pirates are forced to do pirate things,” but this wasn’t presented well. Luckily, it doesn’t take long for Phillips to part ways with his wife and board the ship. Once on water, just about everything in this film works.
Where It Gets Good: When armed Somali pirates board the ship, Phillips sends his crew into hiding and faces the invaders in an attempt to keep the situation under control. Barkhad Abdi plays Muse, the unspoken leader of the pirates, and he gives him a hell of a lot of depth. Muse is clearly in over his head. His threats to Phillips always feel a little empty. He seems to be pleading rather than ordering. Most of the film is spent here, with Phillips working to keep the pirates calm and the pirates throwing threats his way.
And That Doesn’t Get Boring?: When you think about it, Captain Phillips isn’t a terribly eventful film. On paper, it might seem repetitive. But a lot is owed to director Paul Greengrass’ skill. He knows how to create tension and hold it. Captain Phillips never slows down. Tight close-ups and quick camera movements give a slight documentary-like style. Every situation feels dire. Emotionally, Captain Phillips is exhausting. Viewers sympathize with Phillips and his crew, but also with the pirates. Great attention is paid to coloring the pirates with glimpses of sympathy and humanity, and because Greengrass never allows the pirates to become villainous stereotypes, they become much harder to dislike. In scenes before they set out to hijack, our witness of the pirates’ terrible conditions almost makes what they’re doing feel a little justified.
Final Thoughts: It boils down to survival. Captain Phillips is about people trying to get through the situations they’re in. Phillips and his crew are trying to survive the hijacking. The pirates are trying to survive the impoverished conditions into which they were born. Right or wrong, attacker or victim, everyone is just trying to make it.
Okay, One More Thing: Tom Hanks is great in this film. He is really, really great. I would recommend watching Captain Phillips just for his stunning performance in the final scene. But his Boston accent is weird. It’s totally weird and uncomfortable and not very good. I would feel wrong not mentioning it.