Captain Richard Phillips: They’re not here to fish.
In April of 2009, Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by Somali pirates after a group of them boarded his ship. It was an intense and painful experience but he survived. One year later, he published a book about the experience and now, three years later, that book has been turned into a major motion picture, directed by an Academy Award nominee (Paul Greengrass, UNITED 93) and starring a two-time winner (Tom Hanks). In many ways, his tale is tailor made for the movies; it has high stakes drama, nail-biting suspense and a happy ending. In some ways even, the way in which Greengrass cuts it all together, makes it seem as though it was always a movie all along.
The first twenty minutes of the aptly named, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, are a bit of drag. Greengrass cuts back and forth between Hanks’ Phillips preparing for the voyage and the Somali pirates preparing for the attack. This is a bit tedious because we all know what it coming and after a while, you just want the pirates to board Hanks’ ship already so the real action can begin. This does however provide Greengrass with the time to set up the underlying theme in Billy Ray’s screenplay, which is that apparently, the American youth of today will one day have it just as hard as the Solami pirates do right now, from an economic standpoint. Hanks gripes to his wife (Catherine Keener) en route to the airport that kids these days have a hard go at the job market, what with one job for 150 applicants and all. Meanwhile, the Somali pirates pretty much have two job choices left to them, fisherman or pirate. Will younger Americans eventually have to turn to pirating when the fish have all disappeared? According to Greengrass, this may be where the world is headed.
Once the pirates do in fact board the ship, as led by first time actor and very scary dude, Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the real action can begin. When it does, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS becomes an intense experience that had this land dweller frightened for all involved. Whatever politics were introduced in the time leading up to the attack are not the least bit relevant to the action taking place on screen. Greengrass’ practically trademarked shaky cam aesthetic is reasonably toned down, so those fearing sea sickness from the viewing experience can breathe easier. The editing is spot on though as the middle portion of the film is some of the most tense footage I’ve seen this year. As a handful of pirates attempt to find the crew so they can take them as lucrative hostages, Hanks leads the pirates through the ship, misleading them in every way that he can to protect his crew. Hanks is the captain after all and he whole-heartedly earns this title. This is by far Hank’s best performance since he was last lost at sea, in CASTAWAY, if you discount his turns as a cartoon cowboy. He commands both the ship and the film with great strength and determination and by the time the film closes, he will have you in tears.
Despite all of his efforts to avoid any hostage scenario, the good captain is taken prisoner himself on a lifeboat, leaving the final act of the film to become a race between the Navy Seals and the pirates to get back to Somali shores. The interaction between both parties escalates in fierceness and desperation as time goes on but the film itself loses some steam when negotiations start to drag. Hanks brings it all home in the end but as structurally meticulous as CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is, structure is what also exposes its weaker elements as well. Greengrass proves himself to be a worthy captain but his voyage, while genuinely captivating at times, is not without its rougher waters.