Captain Phillips

The Fifth Estate


In the years to come, don’t be surprised to witness Captain Phillips being lumped alongside 2001’s Black Hawk Down, as both films portray American encounters with Somalians and Somalia in some way, shape or form. Captain Phillips in particular is a rather realistic tale of modern day piracy; and while it does get several chunks right, it still leaves several facets to be desired to truly stand in the league of the Ridley Scott masterpiece.


Tom Hanks
Barkhad Abdi


Paul Greengrass


11th October, 2013


134 minutes


The story centers around a real-life event of a hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama, a US freight vessel. Commanded by Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), the ship sets sail from Oman and makes first contact with the pirates aboard two skiffs nearabout the treacherous Gulf of Aden. While Phillips and his crew succeed in outrunning them at first, the pirates re-attack the vessel the following day with renewed vigor and supplies, and hijack the ship.


What follows is a cat and mouse game between Hanks, his crew and the lead pirate (Barkhad Abdi), supplemented later on by the efforts of the US Navy – at which point Phillips is the sole hostage aboard the Alabama’s lifeboat.


The accuracy and realism can’t be faulted in the slightest. The sequence of scenes where the pirates attacked and boarded the ship seems to have actually had an actual mammoth vessel in its filming and if there was indeed any CGI used, it’s been blended in into the mix without much telling residue. Likewise, it’s heartening to see the pirates portrayed as three dimensional human beings and not cardboard villains, and their conversations also provide several comic consequences from time to time.


Tom Hanks though, is a bit of a problem. He could have done better than being a flat receptor of the pirates’ advances from both an aggressive and mental perspective. Or if anything, he keeps saying things to his captors that is likely to anger them rather than calming them down. Look out for those nuggets, I cringed every time.


Not that Hanks doesn’t have the skill to perform such isolated roles; he has done so numerous times in the past – think back to another tale at sea in 2000’sCastaway, or of being an unwanted specimen in The Terminal more recently. Though perhaps the aforementioned need for accuracy and the actions of the ‘real’ Captain Phillips might’ve influenced Hanks’ role somewhat. But it doesn’t set a good template when the personnel from the US Navy are explicitly needed to come along to speed things up to a favourable close in this film, albeit they did perform their roles exceptionally well.


There are a couple of other chinks in the film itself, acting aside. The initial sequence for instance, where Phillips drove to the airport with his wife in tow, are dull and pointless in hindsight of the film’s actual tale and conclusion. And the jerky cam in the lifeboat might actually make you seasick even if you’re several hundred miles inland. As mentioned, nothing happens in there until the navy arrive in any case – just a whole lot of threatening and panicking.


Not the worst film in the world is Captain Phillips but it worryingly joins its entire battalion of average counterparts from the genre this year. Here’s hoping for the trend to bottom out in good time.





Responses (2)

  1. Comparing Captain Phillips to Black Hawk Down is a little unfair, imo. Although marketed in a similar fashion, Phillips isn't really a story of American exceptionalism or a gritty war/survival movie like BHD. If anything, it's the pirates who are heavily outnumbered, outgunned, and ultimately outsmarted by the Alabama crew, and later the U.S. Navy. The only reason they succeed in the beginning is because of sheer daring and guile, but their lack of clear strategy or endgame finishes them in the end.

    There were a couple of half-hearted attempts to give the situation a geopolitical spin – that's why Greengrass had those endless panoramic shots of three Navy warships (plus a Marine chopper) chasing this tiny little lifeboat with one hostage and four (with one injured) lightly armed hostiles. America has this tendency to "go big or go home", and in military situations it almost always means excessive firepower and overkill. I'm not sure how it was received by international audiences, but I'm pretty sure a multitude of Americans were unaware of the scale of the operation that was set up to rescue Phillips.

    Then there are the scenes in the fishing village that show there part-time pirates chewing qat and basically loafing around until their regional boss/warlord shows up to demand money. I felt that side of the story could have been done better, perhaps to give the audience some dose of resonance as to why these guys turn to piracy in the first place. Desperate men are the most fearsome of men, and so on.

    So while I liked the plot overall and how immediate the sequence of events felt, I take issue with the movie's conscience – the moral center of the story. There is no message, overarching theme, or context to the entire episode.

    I have to disagree with you on Hanks' performance. This was one of his better ones, perhaps not as good as Cast Away or Philadelphia, but right up there with Gump and Apollo 13. I was most impressed with his acute portrayal of the everyman – Captain Phillips is no action hero, just a regular guy caught in a terrible situation, and so Hanks had to act the part in terms of gestures and body language as much as dialogue. Hence, the long contemplative (expressionless?) stares and the slow movements and ordinary eloquence of the character. And the way he just breaks down at the end after being rescued, that was top-notch realistic portrayal of post-traumatic stress.

    So my main criticism really has to do with the plot execution and a story lacking context or meaning. And it was slightly longer than it needed to be. Greengrass does have a flair for executing high-stakes/high-tension drama though.

  2. I liked Hanks in Apollo 13. My main critique of him in this film focuses on the fact that he either says the wrong things at the wrong time, or is dull and expressionless from an overall perspective.

    Of course, the real Captain Phillips might've behaved in such a manner too, hence the directors were left with little choice than to demand Hanks to comply with the script that was more or less set in stone at sea in 2010.

    Not his worst for sure, but mid-level for certain.

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