It’s not easy for a film to capture the intricacies and details of a real life event without often embellishing the story or becoming somewhat didactic in its execution. Thankfully, Captain Phillips was able to do so with fair accuracy and a theme that remained as gray and difficult as the heated political climate surrounding the Somali pirate hijacks of 2009.
In the film, Captain Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks) is tasked with commanding a Maersk shipping vessel carrying several tons of cargo along the African coastline to Mumbasa. As was the unfortunate climate of the time, he was traveling through potentially dangerous waters bordering Somalia and was vulnerable to the pirate hijacks that targeted unarmed cargo ships for money. Phillips’ vessel falls prey to such an attack at the hands of pirate captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his crew of three, and everything eventually escalates into a dangerous hostage situation at sea that tests the wits and will of both captains and their crew members.
One of the biggest concerns I had heading into the film was that it would either be a film attempting to manipulate my emotions to sympathize with the pirates, or a hoo-rah type that would display the might and power of the US military with an egregiously pro-America theme. Much to my surprise, however, it instead chose a more thought-provoking and evocative middle road that I found to be very effective. We not only learn about Captain Phillips and get a sense of who he is as a person, but also see the pirates in their village and begin to understand their dire situations and desperate motives that drove them to a life of crime on the seas in order to survive. This doesn’t necessarily make them sympathetic characters, but it does morph the situation from our beloved black and white to a healthy shade of realistic gray that left me torn in my overall opinion of how the matter should have been handled. Much like the actual political debate surrounding the situation back in 2009, I found myself debating the different circumstances and trying to figure out exactly who was in the wrong.
There’s an interesting theme of the difficulties of life in our ever-changing world that the film establishes and does a great job of exploring throughout its entirety. We first hear about it as Rich talks to his wife about his concerns for the futures of his children, and it continues as we see that the pirates have fallen victim to a similar hardship that has led them to piracy as a means of supporting their families. This is especially made clear during a conversation between both Phillips and Muse, when Rich declares that there must be a better way to make a living in Somalia other than hijacking boats and taking hostages, only to be met by Muse’s deflated response of “Maybe in America.” The theme was really the driving force behind the film’s ability to bring up interesting moral questions, and I appreciated how delicately it was handled without becoming ham-fisted in any way.
Captain Phillips also does a great job of maintaining tension throughout, although I was at times bothered with the gratuitous amounts of shaky cam usage during the more intense moments that often made it hard to see everything occurring within a scene. And while it is a production that is likely to keep your heart rate at a healthy sped-up pace, there are quiet moments throughout that allowed for more exposition and helped us gauge how the event was wearing on the characters as events spiraled out of control. Even the pacing was handled well, although there were a few times (particularly during said quiet moments) when it wasn’t difficult to feel its 134-minute running time.
Hanks’ portrayal of Phillips was a solid and, dare I say it, riveting performance, particularly toward the end when we see Phillips in complete shock after witnessing the horrific conclusion to the hostage situation. It might not be as memorable as some of his more standout works such as Castaway or Forrest Gump, but it still stands as one of the better performances I’ve seen from a lead this year.
Overall, Captain Phillips is a compelling and impressive film that not only does a fair job of telling its story from an objective angle, but also handles delicate themes and brings up important issues that are all too often swept under the rug. This, coupled with strong performances and use of great tension, made the film into one of the more impressive and resonant of 2013. It’s not a feel good film for the entire family, but it is nonetheless an important one that should be seen by film enthusiasts and average movie-goers alike.