Film Review: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Billy Ray
Starring Tom Hanks Barkhad Abdi

My enjoyment of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS was undermined by two unrelated issues. The first one was that I saw the Danish film, HIJACKING last spring and found it to be a more nuanced look at the hijacking of a small boat by Somalian pirates. There is nuance in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, but it doesn’t turn up until well into the film. The second issue is that over the last few weeks much of the story portrayed here has been questioned-especially the heroism of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. You can google the name online and get the other story. But for our sake, let’s pretend what we saw on the screen was basically true.

In 2009, four armed Somalis seize the vessel the Maersk Alabama, a US container ship helmed by Captain Phillips (Hanks). The ship is hauling many tons of cargo, including some crates intended for starving people in Africa. The Somalis, by now, have had some success with piracy and send off four モvolunteersヤ to seize the unarmed ship.

Early scenes show the Alabama able to dodge the skiffs but eventually, despite some clever moves by the Captain, the pirates are able to climb onboard and immediately take charge under the leadership of Muse (Abdi) who speaks English and has had success in such seizures. The demands are made and a waiting game begins.

Although Hanks certainly commands our sympathy in a brilliant performance, over time we cannot help but feel sympathy for these four beleaguered pirates, who have little choice about their mission. Even when they take Hanks off in a second vessel waiting for their demands to be met, we are forced to acknowledge how outclassed they are by the U.S. military, which now enters the scene with all of the technology, manpower, might, and training, these four matchstick men lack. It feels like overkill until we realize this is exactly how the story played out. This hi-jacking took place at a time when the U.S. was not prepared to lose a ship to a ragtag band of Somalis.

In the last half-hour the tension oozes away and we finally get a truly great nuanced look at what such an ordeal does to a man. Few actors engage our sympathy as much as Hanks so when he begins to break, we break with him.

This is a fine film in many respects but it often felt tedious and underwritten. No one is given much of a character to play aside from Hanks and the claustrophobia aboard the ship needed to be balanced with more than one man and his nearly nameless captors.

If the film were just a thriller, it wouldn’t have worked for me. But because it came to be about how the tables are turned in several key ways, I have respect if not love for it. Recommended.

Patti Abbott