CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) almost wowed me.
It’s exciting enough, and Tom Hanks certainly delivers a first-rate performance in the lead role, but once again, it’s a case where a movie’s trailer reveals too much information about the film’s plot. I pretty much knew the entire story going into the theater because I had seen the trailer. There were few surprises left.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is based on the true story of the hijacking of an American ship by Somali pirates in 2009, the first time an American vessel had been hijacked in two hundred years.
Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, the captain of a cargo ship, the U.S. Maersk Alabama. Captain Phillips is a competent captain, and once his ship is in international waters near Somalia, he immediately instructs his crew to go through the proper drills because he’s aware of the frequent pirate activity in the area. His fears are quickly confirmed, as armed pirates are spotted racing towards the ship.
Phillips orders the ship to take evasive maneuvers, and the crew use hoses to fend off the pirates, but it’s not enough as a small group of armed Somalian pirates make it on board. At this point, Phillips orders the ship into full lockdown, where the crew hides to avoid becoming hostages.
The pirates are led by a young man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) who is trying to prove his mettle by taking on such a huge ship. Phillips offers to give them the $30,000 that’s in their safe, but that’s not enough for Muse. He decides to search the rest of the ship for the crew and other treasures.
Muse is driven by the need to bring back large amounts of money to the armed lords pulling the strings in Somalia.
When things go wrong, Muse and his pirates take Captain Phillips hostage and leave the ship in a lifeboat, where they are pursued by the U.S. Navy who has orders to do whatever it takes to prevent Phillips from reaching Somalia.
All of this was pretty much shown in the film’s trailer. The only thing in doubt was how it would end, and based on my memory of the real event back in 2009, I had a pretty good idea where things would go.
That’s not to say I didn’t like CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. It’s just that I would have enjoyed it more had I not seen so much of it already before I paid for my ticket.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS sinks or swims with Tom Hanks, and since he turns in his usual strong performance, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS doesn’t sink. As the movie goes along, and things grow tenser, Hank’s performance intensifies as well. The emotions he experiences reminded me somewhat of what Sandra Bullock’s character goes through in the recent movie GRAVITY (2013). Now, GRAVITY is a much more stylish and original film than CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and as such I enjoyed it more, but in terms of acting, Hanks’ performance is right up there with Bullock’s.
Barkhad Abdi in his first acting performance is pretty darn good as Muse, but the fact of the matter is I never felt much sympathy for Muse and his pirates, nor was I that interested in their back story. While the movie does show us a little bit of what their life was like in Somalia, it doesn’t show us enough.
Nonetheless, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS tells a riveting story, and it’s told in a straightforward linear manner by director Paul Greengrass, with the suspense gradually building towards a very tense conclusion. That being said, I enjoyed last year’s ARGO (2012) much better than CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. ARGO knocked the ball out of the park when it came to building up the tension, and it simply had a more interesting story to tell.
Director Greengrass actually scored higher on the suspense meter with his BOURNE movies, as he directed THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004) and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007), the second and third movies in the Matt Damon Bourne series. Greengrass also directed UNITED 93 (2006) and GREEN ZONE (2010), a thriller about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he’s no stranger to films about current events.
The screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips, tells a straightforward story which does a nice job with the human element. Not only do we get inside the head of Captain Phillips and feel his fear, but we also get a good sense of how afraid the crew felt. That being said, we don’t really get to know any of the other crew members all that well. Captain Phillips is pretty much it.
That’s because Ray’s screenplay also builds itself around the pirates. The second most developed character in the movie is the lead pirate Muse. Ray didn’t seem to be building sympathy for Muse and his motives as much as an understanding. In this regard, Ray succeeds. I had a pretty good understanding of Muse’s motives. I just didn’t feel much sympathy for him.
Ray also worked on the screenplay to THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) a movie that did a better job fleshing out its characters and telling its story. I liked CAPTAIN PHILLIPS well enough. I just didn’t love it.
The best part of the movie by far is Tom Hanks’ performance, and he gets better as the film goes along and his character faces more and more peril. The rest of the movie, the acting, the actual story, direction, and the screenplay are all above average, but what’s missing is edge-of-your-seat suspense and characters you can both root for and sympathize with. These latter two elements are several notches below what Hanks brings to the film. It’s too bad because Hanks brings quite a lot.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS reminds us that even though our world is changing dramatically, human beings still remain trapped in situations in which they have little control, often leading them to make decisions to harm others for profit. In this regard, the world hasn’t changed much at all.