CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is a tense and well made thriller based on a simple real life incident: a small band of Somali pirates board an American cargo ship to try to hold the crew for ransom, the crew tries to not be held for ransom. I remember when this happened. I mean, I’m sure this sort of thing happens all the time, but this was the famous one because of how things ended up. So that’s all I really knew about the story, so I was in suspense about how things ended up how they ended up.
Tom Hanks (HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE) plays the titlional captain, portrayed as an ordinary sorta schlubby working man married to Catherine Keener (in a part only slightly bigger than she had as the dead body in BAD GRANDPA). There’s a sense of inevitable doom as he takes his boat around the horn of Africa. We’re not the only ones who know he’s gonna get hijacked. He spends the first part of the movie suffering from an acute case of That Sinking Feeling until sure enough a suspiciously close skiff shows up on the radar.
Then it becomes a procedural about anti-hijacking measures: water hoses on the side of the boat meant to sink approaching skiffs, ramming maneuvers to prevent them from hooking a ladder on, locking of “pirate cages” (the pirates get through those so fast I’m pretty sure they must be a scam sold on some late night infomercial), hiding and locking down the crew, turning off the power, playing dumb about all this. Phillips and a few of the other higher-ups are captured in the cockpit and Phillips has to bring them through the ship to find the crew, condescendingly trying to slow them down with fake helpful suggestions like stopping to make sure everybody is hydrated before they go down into the hot engine room. He does everything but offer them moisturizer.
Can he slow them down without pissing them off? Will the crew be able to pull off their own plans (which include a technique taken out of the Hans Grueber playbook)? And what about the dynamics between the young pirates themselves? There’s a hot-blooded Mr. Blonde in the group who’s always giving the leader (Barkhad Abdi) shit about his decisions, putting him on edge ’cause he wants to prove himself, and also he has a little brother there who doesn’t really know what he’s doing. I mean, even less than they do. It’s almost an Elmore Leonard type of dangerous, you’re as worried about them fucking up as doing something bad on purpose.
For a long time Captain Phillips and crew are on their own, but eventually the military shows up. By this point the pirates are in a covered lifeboat with Phillips as their hostage. There’s one mention of the White House and it doesn’t make Obama look good – it’s implied that if they can’t save Phillips they’re supposed to blow up the boat before it gets ashore and becomes an embarrassing hostage crisis. Just like those assholes wanted to nuke New York in THE AVENGERS. But Iron Man saved the day that time, and in this case its Navy SEALs that fly in to the rescue. This is the most interesting part as they use a negotiator (REDBELT’s Max Martini), a rope, a fake bargain and waves to get their shots on the pirates and not get Phillips killed by either side. I thought they just had to storm the cargo ship. I had no idea they had to snipe ’em in a tiny boat with tiny windows.
The director is Paul Greengrass, who it seems like people have strong opinions on. There’s the contingent that sees him as the thinking man’s action-thriller director and the other one that sees him as the Horseman who brought us the Plague of the Cameras That Shaketh. My instinct is to lean to the second one, but if I’m honest I can’t fairly judge him because I haven’t seen most of the movies he’s made. I liked-not-loved his two BOURNEs, thought he was good at making his style readable but still didn’t know why he thought a non-documentary had to have way worse camerawork than in actual documentaries shot in real battle. I never saw BLOODY SUNDAY, wasn’t up for UNITED 93 and was scared away from GREEN ZONE when even Greengrassians told me they couldn’t tell what was even going on. So I’m only comparing three movies here, but CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is the best of the ones I’ve seen. It’s in that same handheld style, but this is not an action movie and any shakiness didn’t interfere with my understanding of the geography.
If you’re looking for it to say something smart about these types of conflicts I’m not sure you’re gonna find it. It just makes the wise move of depicting everybody as humans. We first see the pirates at home and they’d rather stay there, but the bosses storm in and threaten everybody with guns and what else can they do? To them it’s a shitty, dangerous job just like for Phillips’s crew. Only the pirates don’t have a union so they don’t get coffee breaks. They have little things they say that are supposed to win over the customer, like “we’re not Al Quaeda. Just business. Everything okay.”
The whole thing is so tragic. All these guys on the bottom of the totem pole just trying to do their crappy jobs and people are gonna have to die on one side if not both. It would be kinda cool actually if they started with the pirates before we got to the Americans, to make it feel like we were watching the whole thing through their point of view. But their introduction goes a long way toward showing their unfortunate place in the system instead of just making them scary foreigners with guns and big teeth.
Hanks is so famous of course it’s hard not to think of him as Tom Hanks doing an accent, or Walt Disney without the mustache, but it’s one of his more successful transformations I think, and everybody around him feels really natural. These are working men, not handsome, mostly with bellies. I especially like his first mate, Shane (Michael Chernus), who reminds me of a clerk at a grocery store in my neighborhood. And the medic at the end, who has got to be a real medic doing her thing. Hopefully they told her this was Tom Hanks and weren’t playing a JACKASS type prank on her. And the pirates are amazing. They come across as flawed kids, not evil villains. More like boyz n the hood than kings of New York.
After watching I made the risky move of trying to read up on how accurate the movie is to the real events. It seems to be heavily researched and close to what Phillips says happened in his book. Unfortunately there are also people from the crew claiming his book is full of shit. In my opinion the movie doesn’t make him out to be some awesome hero who saved the day, he’s just a guy who goes through an ordeal, makes some good decisions, takes some risks, gets lucky. He’s even kind of an asshole sometimes – I think you’re supposed to relate to the crew not thinking they get paid enough to fight pirates, and side with them when he keeps implying that they’re lazy people who just sit around drinking coffee all day.
Unfortunately, some crew members claim in a lawsuit that he was neglectful and ignored many warnings, unlike the guy in the movie who is way more observant and concerned than everybody else. But I don’t know. Greengrass commented on this and said that he had people heavily fact check the movie, he didn’t find those claims to be credible and he portrayed what he believed to be accurate. Maybe he’s right, I don’t know.
Anyway, screenwriter Billy Ray is best known for writing HIDDEN ASSASSIN, and also he did HUNGER GAMES but obviously nobody gives a shit because he wrote one for Dolph, that’s the headline. Here he has scripted a good piracy thriller, well executed by Greengrass and cast. This movie is much better than I expected. Drink up, me hearties, yo ho!
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.