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One glance at the teaser trailer for Captain Phillips and we could tell that it was going to be a "real" movie. The theme of modern piracy on the high seas is a grabber, and would surely give Tom Hanks a meaty role. Based on a book by the captain of a container ship hijacked for ransom off the coast of Somalia in 2009, Captain Phillips is a gift to commercial filmmakers -- a tense real-life story in an unusual setting. Best of all, the potentially violent events actually had a happy ending.
This year's All Is Lost sticks to a first-person ordeal format, forcing us to share a lone man's efforts to survive in a really sticky situation. The gambit works until the time comes to wrap things up. Captain Phillips has some of the same we're-stuck-here-and-God-help-us feeling, but isn't so claustrophobic. Besides the participation of an entire navy in the rescue effort, the filmmakers have the moral sense to at least touch on the causes for the rash of piracy hijackings. Better yet, Billy Ray's taut screenplay gives us an excellent duel of wits between captains, one a captive and the other a desperate criminal. Paul Greenglass tailors his direction to the story at hand, backing away from unnecessary visual gimmicks. Captain Phillips did well but was nobody's idea of a major boxoffice champ. Even with its by-the-numbers depiction of elite military action, I found it very entertaining on all counts.
The story follows the events of April 2009 fairly faithfully. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) reports to the ship Maersk Alabama and sets off down the East African coast. Pirates have been operating in the area, but the ship's only special security measures are some fire hoses and locking gates. The attack comes in the form of small boats from the Somali mainland. The leader of the four attackers is Muse (Barhkad Abdi), a fisherman-turned pirate. Clever tricks and non-lethal defenses work only so long against Muse's automatic weapons. Captain Phillips soon finds himself a hostage on his own boat, with most of his crew hiding in the engine room. Muse speaks English. He informs Phillips that he's the captain now... and that his orders better be followed or he'll start killing officers.
Although much (all?) of Captain Phillips was filmed on digital video, the picture delivers genuine old-fashioned bigscreen appeal. Director Greenglass can keep the exposition with radar scopes to a minimum, because we can see for ourselves how a pair of outboard motor launches can outpace a cargo ship as big as a city block and as tall as an office building. Captain Kidd probably used the same game plan -- this is an 18th century crime transposed to the 21st century. All that's lacking is the sense of romance. Muse is not a swarthy buccaneer, and Phillips is less a jaunty sea captain than an ocean-going bus driver. The Maersk Alabama reminds us of a floating industrial installation. The interior spaces are pretty miserable, and so redundant that we aren't even shown the whole thing.
That leaves most of the picture to the war of nerves between Phillips and Muse. The confrontations are scary but there isn't much of a contest, strategically speaking. Muse falls for most of the Captain's tricks and Phillips makes no real mistakes. Although Muse would never admit it, he becomes a pitiable foe. His much more volatile henchman are a green kid who doesn't even have sandals, an okay boatsman and a brutal hothead. This third guy keeps forgetting that Phillips is no good to them dead, and pummels him even when doing so insures their extermination by the Navy experts. Muse squawks and threatens, yet we soon realize that he doesn't want to kill anyone. Just the same, the standoff could easily end up in a slaughter.
Any number of exploitation pictures would be happy to film a two-hour valentine to the Navy, lauding their expertise with impossible situations, and their brilliant use of focused firepower. Captain Phillips gives us a full hour of professional sailors organizing a picture-perfect anti-hijacking strategy. The situation is relatively simple, as no politics are directly involved. It's just thieves and killers on the high seas, and their actions have no moral defense. Just as in classic morale-building tales, a righteous smiting should settle the score and save the day.
But the filmmakers seem to have had folk like Savant in mind, for we learn things about Muse and his scurvy crew that may alter our perceptions. The pirates aren't professionals but poor unemployed fishermen schlubs forced to hijack ships by greedy warlords. Muse claims that his tribesmen can no longer make an honest living because enormous foreign floating factory ships regularly scour their waters, removing all the fish. I guess that makes Muse something of a tragic character, and just as much a victim of the global economy as a factory worker back in Ohio or Michigan.. Unfortunately, explanations aren't the same as excuses, and the developed world's military is not charged with protecting the interests of powerless Somali fishermen. To succeed, pirates need to have a big advantage over their prey and must be utterly ruthless. Caught between a warlord and Uncle Sam's guns, Muse is neither smart enough nor savage enough. Nice guys shouldn't become pirates.
I assume that after a number of incidents effective strategies were employed to protect the shipping lanes. Watching Captain Phillips, we quickly conclude that the ship company has a lot of nerve sending its vessels into dangerous waters unarmed, protected only by foolish water hoses and security gates that don't even slow the pirates down. Why didn't they institute more severe security measures? For the same reason that WalMart does what it does. If they did anything they'd have to admit that they know a real danger exists. The maritime union would rightfully demand armed guards and special risk pay. Corporate execs don't advance by spending money and increasing salaries. But it isn't just the owners. Given a chance, the union would milk the threat for all it's worth. When Phillips' crew starts grousing about unfair risks and inadequate protection (and pay), the movie suddenly reminds us of 1979's Alien, where every discussion over breakfast is soon steered to labor issues.
Barkhad Abdi's Muse is an utterly convincing pirate, an undernourished unfortunate who has few or no choices in his life and finds himself way over his head. I think that average Americans should identify with him almost as much as they do Tom Hanks' captain. Muse ends up talking like a protagonist in a loser noir movie. He never had any choice, and even when the outlook is hopeless, he must play his miserable role out to the end. He may be the ultimate Fall Guy, but he doesn't surrender.
The pre-voyage scenes tell us that Hanks' Captain Phillips has the same problem that Muse does: he doesn't feel in control of his life or his job. The difference is that he's comfortable, well-fed and reasonably secure. I like the idea that Phillips is not a nice guy, beloved by his crew. He's a boss charged with getting results from a small group of disgruntled employees. The same story could be happening in a warehouse in Pomona. When push comes to shove Phillips plays the true blue leader, protecting his men in every way he can. But it's likely that none of his men would call him a friend. 1
Absolutely winning us over is a final scene with the medics in sick bay. Phillips is battered and bloodied, and has pretty much had it. He's in shock to the point where he can't process questions, give clear answers or follow directions, and he breaks down while the doctor checks him out for physical damage. It all looks absolutely real, and it's extremely affecting. If Hanks gets an Oscar nod, it'll be for this scene.
Parts of the show were filmed in Morocco and Malta. Captain Phillips looks real at all times, especially the scenes with ships. I'm more accustomed to the terrible digital effects on shows like TV's NCIS, and at first thought that all the seagoing action was real. The photo-real effects are a testament to the 150 +/- names given visual effects credits, as well as director Greenglass's visual restraint -- there are no showoff CG shots.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet of Captain Phillips is a crystal clear rendering of this impressive adventure-suspense film with a true-life story hook. The cinematography takes a no-nonsense approach to the shipboard scenes, and the military sections are a parade of granite-jawed warriors at the top of their game.
Director Greenglass provides a full-length commentary. A making-of docu called Capturing Captain Phillips has better content than the usual EPK-style featurette. I did find a problem with the disc on a second screening -- there does not appear to be a way to see subtitles for the Somali dialogue (which is important) without also turning on the subs for the normal English speech throughout the film. In other words, the Somali dialogue among the pirates does not have 'forced' subtitles. We experimented some but found no solution; I welcome a correction if I'm wrong.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I've read an article reporting that some crew members of the Maersk Alabama claim that the nice-guy characterization of the Captain exists only in Phillips' own published version of events. The article muddies the water further by saying that this grousing may be in service of a lawsuit against the ship owners. Most of us will see the movie, decide that the likeable Tom Hanks is still a swell guy, and go on our way.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.