by Michael Walters
The Cantankerous Critic
Captain Phillips has a lot going for it, but it nearly capsizes at its climax, by not trusting history to be compelling enough.
Tom Hanks stars as “Captain Phillips,” a shipping boat captain who was captured by Somali pirates in 2009. The film makes Hanks out to be the hero, but also doesn’t shy away from making him seem like a bit of a jerk too. He’s condescending, dismissive, and has little time for anyone else’s complaints. He’s respected, but unloved by his crew – a man who never lets feelings get in the way of a job to do. But he and everyone else spring to action when two small boats of Somali Pirates attack.
Director Paul Greengrass has the tough job of building suspense in a story where the audience already knows the outcome, but he’s largely up to the task. His handheld camera style creates the immediacy needed to bring this real life tale of piracy on the high seas to life. We almost feel like we’re bobbing and weaving on the open ocean along with this massive freighter, which is too sluggish to outrun a simple fishing boat.
The film also gives us a glimpse into the world of the pirates themselves. While the film doesn’t ask us to sympathize with them, we at least get an idea what drove them to piracy in the first place.
For the film’s entire second act, after the pirates take the ship, Hanks is matching wits with the pirate captain Muse (untested Somali actor Barkhad Abdi). The pirates want to take the ship for ransom. Hanks is trying to throw them off, and undermine them at every turn while appearing to cooperate.
When the film has the courage to let events play out, it’s powerful. But the climax involving the Navy SEAL raid that rescued Captain Phillips rings false. When it happened, it sounded like something out of a Hollywood movie. But once Phillips is taken hostage with the pirates on a small lifeboat, contrivances, manipulations, quibbles about accuracy, and too much capital “A” acting threaten to take “Captain Phillips” down with the ship.
Screenwriter Billy Ray seems to think the audience needs to have its heart strings yanked, and Captain Phillips needs to alternate between tough guy one-liners and blubbering to build suspense and evoke empathy in a battle we already know the outcome of. Hanks remains committed to the role, but his blubbery wailing may bring out more cringes than hankies.
“Captain Phillips” is still a pretty good movie, just not the great one it could have been if the filmmakers had simply let well enough alone.