Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Paul Greengrass’s movie, Captain Phillips is a very interesting movie about the piracy problem affecting ship travel around the horn of Africa. Instead of creating an action movie about how a ship and crew are rescued and persevere against a band of pirates, his movie presents a critical situation that looks at both sides point of view. The brilliance here is that he is able to humanize the pirates without creating too much empathy for their situation. The problem is that, despite the great storytelling and acting, there are some script issues and pacing problems that make this a bit of a rocky ride at times.
Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is guiding his cargo ship from Oman around the horn of Africa to Kenya. His ship is boarded by Somali pirates who hold the Captain and his bridge crew captive. The rest of the crew hides in the engine room. After overpowering the leader of the pirates, Abduwali Muse (Abdi), the crew attempt to trade Muse back to the crew of pirates and have them leave the ship by lifeboat in return. However, the pirates double-cross Phillips and his crew and manage to still escape the ship in the lifeboat with Captain Phillips as a hostage. The pirates are now frantically (albeit slowly due to the speed of the lifeboat) trying to make their way back to Somali before the US Navy can catch up to them and rescue Phillips.
The story is well done and quite engaging. There could have been many different ways that the movie could have been presented. They could have presented it entirely from the perspective of Captain Phillips and his crew but instead Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray chose to also look at things from the Somali perspective. Instead of treating them as soulless adversaries, you understand the motives of Muse and his mates. You see the hardships that Muse’s people are facing and how they are forced into this life. When Muse tells Phillips that he’s got no choice but to try to get millions for Phillips even though the odds of success are slim to none, it’s apparent that, in the mind of Muse, that there is no turning back. That’s not to say that you’re cheering for Muse and his side to win; the enemy, while evil in their intentions, are not evil at their core.
The other way they could have gone with this movie would make it an action thriller. Sure, there are some brief fight scenes involving the crew of the cargo ship and there are a couple of even briefer scenes involving some Navy SEALs but there really isn’t much in terms of action; the tension where everyone feels like they’re walking on eggshells adds more suspense to the movie than any overdone fight sequence could have ever created. There was some risk here as there are too many times in this movie where people are just staring at each other but it works. It was a fine line because instead of it feeling like anyone could snap at a moment’s notice, it could have become very dull and boring. When things did become frantic, the paused tension felt like the eye of a storm of a hurricane and made this flurry of excitement even more pronounced.
This was aided by some incredible acting performances. Tom Hanks does a good job as the stern Captain Phillips who begins to fall into despair because of his situation. The gradual transformation of a man who’s got it all together who slowly falls to pieces is well executed. The star of the movie, though, is Barkhad Abdi, who created more emotion with his eyes than most actors do with their entire body. Just by looking at him, you can see the fear throughout his body or he can impose so much fear by his long, menacing stares. To the casual observer, Muse looks like another cog in the wheel and nothing like a leader however, Abdi lets us know that Muse is fully aware of what he needs to do to survive and that his character is cunning enough to pull off even what might seem impossible.
But this film is far from perfect. There are whole sequences that don’t make much sense or waste time. Many of these scenes involve the Navy SEALs. Much of their screen time either feels redundant, unnecessary, or confusing. It’s hard to go detail because much of the Navy SEALs part takes place towards at the end of the movie but a few times it seemed like they should have been doing something else. It felt like they could have saved Captain Phillips a couple of times well before the end of the movie. Even the part where the captain of the lead navy ship, Frank Castellano (Yul Vazquez) is reluctant to call in a SEAL team because he thinks he can end the situation without a violent confrontation seems wasteful. There’s the big emphasis that Castellano doesn’t want SEAL involvement; even to the point of almost begging. Yet, after his deadline passes to end the conflict, he does pretty much nothing to convince his superiors to rely on the SEALs. The complete about-face seems bizarre and only served to fit the event of Castellano and his crew failing in their attempt to solve the crisis.
This film doesn’t exactly move at a fast pace either. There are times where it feels like the movie hits pause. This is sometimes a strategy employed in movies when they have tons of action so the audience can calm down a bit before letting loose again. However, the action never gets that intense. Sure, there are plenty of times where it feels like everything and everyone was so wound tight that it could all snap instantly but not to the point where the audience needs to calm down. Things like long dialogue that goes over what’s already been established or scenes that go on for too long make the movie feel a bit uneven.
Captain Phillips is very enjoyable. Paul Greengrass did a fine job at making a pirate movie that looks at both perspectives and doesn’t try to glorify pirates. It does a fair job examining a real-world issue that isn’t as black and white as it seems on the surface. Supported by some excellent acting, especially Barkhad Abdi, the film feels almost like a documentary (at least until the navy gets involved). Even with the hiccups in the movie, it’s still quite satisfying from start to end.