Release Date: October 11, 2013
Director: Paul Greengrass
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Film Pulse Score: 6.5/10
For the few who may not know Captain Phillips’ story, the following review contains “spoilers.”
Director Paul Greengrass’ latest film, Captain Phillips, has a running time of 134 minutes but it moves at the speed of light. Like some of his other films – such as The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 – Phillips is filled with fast-paced action and quickly-delivered dialogue. It is expertly directed in that it achieves precisely what Greengrass had certainly hoped – to tell the story of a merchant mariner kidnapped by Somali pirates after his ship was boarded off the African coast. Despite incredible action sequences, a gripping true tale, and an earnest performance by Tom Hanks in the eponymous role, Phillips ultimately failed to grab me in the way for which I had hoped. It is a good movie for sure, but I do not agree with those critics who are calling it one of the best films of the year. Perhaps it is one of the best by comparison to the generally abysmal fare which has been released thus far in 2013.
Many people know the story of Richard Phillips and the U.S. cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, as it was extensively covered by the media at the time. In April 2009, two small skiffs – with four Somali pirates in each – tracked the enormous vessel in what would ultimately be a successful boarding by one of the four-man groups. The majority of the ship’s crew hid in the engine room yet managed to effectively disable the ship so that the pirates could not control it. Phillips and two other crew members remained on the bridge. Ultimately dismayed that they could not get the ship to work and because the pirates’ leader had been captured by the crew, the remaining three Somalis decided to head for Africa in the ship’s enclosed lifeboat with Phillips as their human collateral. For roughly four days, the three pirates headed for home with Phillips as their captive while an American naval destroyer – the USS Bainbridge – and a frigate – the USS Halyburton – followed the lifeboat. The Maersk Alabama was safely escorted to Kenya with its crew in good condition and one pirate safely in American custody.
The Navy had the difficult task of determining how best to rescue Phillips who naval personnel feared was in immediate danger. Tricking the Somali leader and his gang into thinking elders from their tribe were being brought to the Bainbridge for monetary negotiations, naval personnel convinced the armed pirates to allow a line to be tied to the lifeboat and towed in closer to the destroyer. What the pirates did not know was that Navy Seal Team 6 had been dispatched to take out the Somalis by lethal means which the Seal team ultimately did in some incredible nighttime marksmanship. Other than the cargo ship’s boarding toward the film’s beginning, the climactic scene in which the Seal sharpshooters take steady aim on a moving ocean to save Phillips’ life is an incredible filmmaking feat.
The four Somali actors playing the pirates – Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali – were discovered in a Minneapolis casting call and are incredibly believable in their roles as desperate young men from a desperate country driven to engage in desperate activities. Despite early awards-season buzz for Hanks’ performance, I found his work to be effective but not groundbreaking; I imagine this is the kind of role Hanks could do in his sleep.
In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Hanks talked about being interested in the details of Phillips’ story and wanting to tell the tale through those details. He noted that while he and many others know of the basic event from the media coverage, most people are not aware of the minute-to-minute happenings that occurred over that fateful four-day period in 2009. Well, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray certainly tell the story in detail and that attention to detail is arguably the film’s greatest strength. Although I felt little emotional connection to the film’s telling of Phillips’ ordeal, I was impressed with the technical achievements attained by Greengrass and his crew. While the lifeboat scenes were largely shot in a recreated vessel sitting on hydraulics in a warehouse, the earlier harrowing scenes of the Maersk Alabama’s boarding were shot on the open sea – something for which the filmmakers deserve enormous respect and appreciation.
I still remain dissatisfied with Captain Phillips as I suppose I expected more from everyone involved in bringing the true-life saga of one man’s plight against modern-day piracy to the big screen. Hanks has proven more than once that he is perfectly capable of carrying a film. And Greengrass tackled an incredibly difficult real-life event in one of the last decade’s best films, United 93, so I expected even greater things from him here. For some reason or set of reasons, the film just does not come together for me. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review, the movie really has so much going for it from the story and cast to the “you are there” photography capturing the oceanic misadventures that occurred; that it does not fully capitalize on these characteristics opens the door for disappointment.
As a final note, films involving true events are often taken to task for historical inaccuracies or for highlighting some details and not others (see, for example, The Hurricane or A Beautiful Mind). Nearly half the crew recently announced that they are suing Phillips and Maersk for ignoring warnings about Somali pirates. Those crew members note that Phillips and the ship’s owners were told to stay 600 miles off the African coast but when boarded, the Maersk Alabama was within approximately 250 miles of Africa. There is a brief scene in which Hanks as Phillips reads an email warning of pirates in the area, and the real threat of piracy is raised by the captain and crew before the vessel is attacked. I wonder if the film will ultimately suffer due to the lawsuit and certain crew members’ assessment that Phillips was not a hero and should not be celebrated as such but reproached instead for putting the ship, its cargo, the crew, and ultimately himself in harm’s way.