‘Captain Phillips’ A Good Film, With Caveats


I was a bit surprised at the new flick Captain Phillips, although I did like it a lot. The trailers and ads for the movie have all centered almost solely on Tom Hanks, and yet he plays a less-than-vivid character for most of the movie. The real problem, however, is that while director Paul Greengrass tries to emulate Zero Dark Thirty, far too many tricks are used, and the film even builds up sympathy for the pirates. Talk about political correctness!

The film in most ways is absolute simplicity. Phillips (Hanks) is a real pro. He behaves a bit like a martinet (old word: means follows every rule and regulation to the letter), which makes him a bit boring and off-putting even though it is an absolute necessity at sea. And the opening section of the movie is a bit slow. That changes when the ship is boarded by four Somali pirates, which is where the action really begins. Based on a real incident, the pirates board the unarmed ship, take over and demand ransom, and then are taken themselves by the U.S. Navy (which cooperated greatly with the filmmakers; after all, it certainly could use some good publicity).

The movie ratchets up the tension; the huge ship is an ideal place to have a lot of movement. There are a lot of out-of-the-way places, and it provides a good background for much of the middle section of the movie. The captors wave and fire their guns but seem not to want to actually hurt the sailors. Most of the crew actually takes refuge in a locked engine room and prevent the pirates from controlling the ship. Captain Phillips winds up trying to work with the leader, at least to save both their lives. Scenes in a small lifeboat (totally enclosed, rather different from what most people expect, but I assume that is the latest, real model) are vivid. They are probably the strongest element of the movie. Phillips was the only prisoner and eventually winds up at the center of a final, bloody ending.

There were several disturbing elements, however. First, of course, was the conscious choice to not make villains of the pirates. Frankly, I enjoyed action movies of the past where the good guys were really good and the bad guys were really mean. Now, we seem to have blurred a lot of the lines. I mean, these guys were pirates! Under the old rules of the sea, that meant they could more or less be executed out of hand. Many people taken by them were murdered. Now, we have to have kinder, gentler pirates. It seemed strange that the U.S. Navy and SEALs almost (and I stress the word almost) seem like bullies.

Even stranger, and I actually did check the rules, at the time all this happened, international law insisted that merchant ships not carry weapons. This is based on a true incident. They were sort of floating “no-weapons” zones, perfect as victims for those who ignore the rules.

The point of the film, however, is to highlight the quiet heroism of Captain Phillips, and there is no one around who handles that kind of role better than Tom Hanks, who has become a sort of the Henry Fonda good-guy for our time. He manages to demonstrate a lot of interesting character twists while not only standing up for his people but in dealing with the pirates.

Catherine Keener as his wife is totally wasted, however. She is strong in the few minutes and then disappears. The pirates are far more interesting characters. None of them were performers before the film, yet they do very well here, creating far more vivid characters than the regular sailors. Barkhad Abdi is superb as the pirate leader Muse. He manages to bring not only power but an underlying decency to the part. It is one of the better performances of the year.

This is one of those long movies that seem a lot shorter while watching them. We’ve had many heart-pounding movies over the past month or so, including Prisoners and Gravity. This film is not quite in that category, but it is very good. It is worth seeing.