Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) and his crew are on a routine cargo run from Oman to Mombasa when four Somali pirates board and then take over the ship. Intending to hold the ship for a ransom of millions of dollars, things take a turn for the Somalis when their leader Abduwali Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi) is captured by the crew. When a trade is attempted, Captain Phillips for Muse, it doesn’t go as planned, and Captain Phillips is left in an even graver situation.
Normally I’d rather not know how a story ends before it’s told to me. I want to be surprised by the events that happen. Captain Phillips, if you didn’t already know, is based on a true story. The events took place in 2009 and were heavily publicized. Yet that takes little, if any, tension out of the film. It is so well-constructed and the acting so good, that I forget I was watching something that actually occurred. When the Somalis board the ship, and begin waving around their machine guns and screaming loudly, with their eyes showing all four sides of white, the moment is pregnant with fear and tension and potential disaster. It doesn’t matter that I know Captain Phillips is going to make it through this scene. It’s like opening a bottle of champagne: you know the cork is going to pop out, and even if you brace yourself for it, you’re never quite ready for that release of pressure.
There has been some controversy over the accuracy of Captain Phillips’ portrayal, and it’s an issue worth exploring, but judging it for itself, the movie is solid. There’s a beginning, middle and end, high stakes, and believable, empathetic characters for whom those stakes matter.
What I really like about this movie is that it presents the Somali pirates as real people doing bad things as opposed to generic “bad guys.” The film gives us a hint of their motivations when it shows that these impoverished men are pressured by even more powerful and ruthless men to engage in these activities. What happens to them if they refuse? To their families? Are there other, non-violent opportunities available to these men? Have they been placed in their situations by forces outside of their control or is it a choice? The movie doesn’t ask these questions directly, and it certainly doesn’t try to answer them, but it gets you ask the questions yourself.
Muse is particularly interesting. He views himself as a business man, participating in nothing more than a business transaction. While not a cruel man, he is capable of swift violence. He has an ego that leads him to believe he’s the smartest guy in the room with all the control, but lacks the smarts to realize that everyone is actually playing him and stroking his ego for their own ends. I never rooted for him to succeed, but I didn’t want him to die either. Rather I just wanted him to eventually see the error of his ways and make a change.
First, Tom Hanks: He gives a solid performance from start to finish, but it’s a scene near the end that pushes him into amazing territory. I won’t spoil the movie by describing the scene, but suffice it to say that it carries more raw emotion than I’ve ever seen from the actor who first charmed me as the boy-turned-man in Big. Hanks near broke my heart in that scene, and it’s actually changed how I view him as an actor. I recently rewatched parts of Cast Away with a much greater appreciation for his abilities than I had the first time I saw it.
And now, Barkhad Abdi: I didn’t like Muse, but I did feel for him. That’s in large part thanks to Abdi’s performance. He gave Muse depth and turned him into a person instead of a monster. People will always be more interesting than monsters.
Even though the rest of the Somali characters didn’t get as much focus as Muse, they were all crafted believably and executed handsomely. So kudos to Faysal Ahmed as Najee, Barkhad Abdirahman as Bilal, and Mahat M. Ali as Elmi.
I’m one of those people who gets headaches from watching shaky cam, and it’s only getting worse as I get older. Unfortunately there was some shaky cam in Captain Phillips, not enough to have harmed my viewing experience, but I did have to close my eyes a couple of times until it passed. I know Greengrass has a penchant for that technique though, so I’m just glad he tapered it down in this movie compared to his Bourne films.
He shows us some beautiful images on the ocean. When the cargo ship and the pirate skiff are both in the shot, the skiff looking like a tiny virus trying to infect a large healthy host, it’s gorgeous and terrifying. Then when we see a lifeboat in the face of a massive navy battleship, the contrast is striking, and the power of size is evident.
Speaking of the lifeboat, it’s noteworthy how they were able to film in such a tight space. I’m sure there were many tricks and techniques to accomplish it, but we always feel like we’re cramped in a tiny space, so much that it was getting a little claustrophobic for me.
Now, if the aesthetic of a movie can extend to the actors themselves, then I commend this movie for its hiring of actual Somali actors. Aside from them all being good performers, I found that they all just had interesting faces, both their shapes and organization of features. These were face types I don’t normally see in movies, and strange as I think it sounds to comment on it, I appreciated that.
Do I want to see it again?
I liked it well enough that I would rewatch it, though I don’t know if I see myself actively seeking it out again.
|Argo: Looking for another tense and thrilling movie based (somewhat) on a true story? Argo will definitely hit that spot. This one is also plagued by controversy regarding accuracy, but the film itself, detailing the daring rescue of six American diplomats from Tehran, Iran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, is a top notch nail-biter. Directed by Ben Affleck. Screenplay by Chris Terrio. Based on the book, The Master of Disguise by Tony Mendez. (Buy it on Amazon.com: Streaming, DVD, Blu-ray)|
|Zero Dark Thirty: Another tense movie based on a true story, though not a thriller like Argo or Captain Phillips. It details the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, led by a determined CIA operative and executed by navy special ops team, "Seal Team Six," the same operatives called in to handle the Somali pirate situation. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal.(Buy it on Amazon.com: Streaming, DVD, Blu-ray)|
|Dog Day Afternoon: I might as well include another one based on true events. This one tells a story of an attempted bank robbery that devolves into a hostage situation. This time we see things happen from the P.O.V. of the criminals, allowing us to witness just how easy it is for these situations to spiral out of control. Starring Al Pacino and John Cazale, it was directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Frank Pierson. (Buy it on Amazon.com: Streaming, DVD, Blu-ray)|