Directed by: Paul Greengrass
PG-13. 134 mins
In the hands of director Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips is hardly a miss, but it’s overlong and lacking in some much-needed depth. Tom Hanks plays the titular character, and real life hero, in this depiction of the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama by a crew of Somali pirates. The parallel between Captain Richard Phillips and the Somali pirate captain, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is drawn almost immediately as we see both men almost begrudgingly take control of their respective crews. Phillips and Muse come from completely different worlds, but more than one hundred miles off the Somali coast their fates are soon at the mercy of larger forces no matter how badly they wish to control their own destinies.
Billy Ray’s screenplay is based upon the memoir, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty, so it all feels authentic but there is a lot of tension lacking in this nightmare pulled straight from the headlines. Perhaps it’s because the audience is already aware of how the story ends, but there are only brief moments of suspense and an inordinate amount of unnecessary details – time that would have been better spent giving some more background to these characters, particularly the Somali pirates. Exploring the themes of globalization and economics rather than just skimming the surface of such poignant issues, is another aspect in which Captain Phillips fails to capitalize on this Hollywood opportunity. If rich drama is what you seek, better to check out Denmark’s A Hijacking, which really unpacked these issues and did so with much more excitement.
Captain Phillips is occasionally a nail-biter, and Tom Hanks does indeed deliver an empathetic performance, but there’s something about the Hollywood treatment that drains this story from any sense of real danger. The actual ordeal must have been exhausting and as an audience, the experience of witnessing it all proves even more tiresome. This is because, despite the realistic stylings of Greengrass, it’s not an easy task to really feel for these characters, even if we know this is a true story. In the end, we haven’t gleaned much information about the Somali pirates, the crew members, or even Captain Phillips. There is a brief conversation with his wife as they discuss the future of their teenage son, meanwhile unemployed men in the Somali village fight for a spot in a piracy mission that could ensure their future. Obviously, this is meant to be some sort of comparison to the first and the third world, but like much of the film’s thematic journey, it’s all a little bit too transparent. The coffee mug with pictures of Phillip’s family, the Maersk Alabama’s unionized crew members who complain about their pay, the complete adoration for the ninja-like tactics of the NAVY while the Somali pirates argue amongst each other in a cartoonish manner for almost the entire feature and worst of all, a ridiculous scene in which Phillips feeds the Somali pirates pieces of fruit as if they are monkeys in a cage – these are just a few of the manipulative details that disrupt the even, objective storytelling that Greengrass is striving for. Greengrass treaded similar ground in the searing United 93, but the idea of ordinary people being caught in extraordinary circumstances felt far more authentic and frankly, packed a bigger punch.
A frustrating and curiously distant tale of survival, many critics agree that Tom Hanks’ performance is what delivers the powerful moments that are scattered throughout the film, but never amount to a truly absorbing story. Flat dialogue, obvious parallels and a simplistic treatment of global issues serve as Captain Phillip‘s undoing in a film that can’t seem to break through the confines of a typical Hollywood action movie.