in Review

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is not an easy movie to make. Taking a recent news story that most of America remembers (at least to the level of “oh yeah, the Somali pirate thing”) and making it into a thriller is no easy task. Zero Dark Thirty made it work by focusing on the people behind the story, but Captain Phillips doesn’t have a Maya. We’ve just a captain, his crew, some pirates, a squad of Navy SEALS, and what happened between them. And so the challenge is turning the images in our heads into something we’d want to watch for over two hours. Fortunately, visually exciting movies are kind of director Paul Greengrass’ specialty.

In that way, it was weird watching Gravity and Captain Phillips back-to-back. Both movies thrive by putting you into horrific situations that, although totally improbable, make you ask, “what would I do in this situation?” Neither movie is particularly strongly written, but is elevated by the skill behind the production and great performances by the lead actors. Gravity is really, really the superior film, but it was nice to see a couple movies I could actually give a damn about after this forgettable summer.

So: Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, a family man and the captain of the American container ship Maersk Alabama. While sailing a shipment around the Horn of Africa, the Maersk Alabama is boarded by armed pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a skinny young man who is as desperate as he is dangerous. Phillips is taken hostage and a battle of wits and guts between the two captains begins. How accurate it is doesn’t really matter, even if Captain Phillips is actually an arrogant jerk, this is still a riveting set-up.

Of course we’re going to like Tom Hanks in the role, and of course he’s going to seem like a great guy. The real story is Barkhad Abdi, I guess, who many say turns in a masterful performance. He’s good, but I found the character of Muse confusing: I never quite understood where he was coming from. While get a Catherine Keener-inclusive look at Phillips’ home life, what we see of Muse in Somalia left me scratching my head. Does he want to prove himself because everyone looks down at him? Is he uniquely greedy or arrogant? What is life really like in that village? Does he really have no other options – it’s be a pirate or die? I’m not sure.

Like I said, Captain Phillips doesn’t really worry about the greater narrative in favor of submerging you in the tension of the hijacking. And it’s pretty thrilling to watch. Needless to say, it’s not easy for four guys in a dingy to capture a freighter, nor is it easy to stand up to dudes with machine guns when you’re a civilian sailor. Really, I only fault the movie for being a bit confusing with the timeline: Some events are really drawn out, other times it cuts between scenes without making it clear just how long we’ve been gone. 134 minutes is a long time to be on the edge of your seat, and by the end I wasn’t even sure if asking myself “is this when it happens” was coming from a place of terror or boredom. As John theorized, maybe both.

Captain Phillips is fun. Greengrass’ trademark shaky cam pairs really nicely with an intense hostage situation and the great performances on display here. Once you’ve checked out Gravity, you should probably go see this movie. And then, I dunno, Before Midnight. Gotta simmer down a little before your heart pounds right out of your chest.