Captain Phillips: The Story of Two Desperate Men Just Trying to Survive

I like Tom Hanks’ approach to movies. He’s kind of like a groundhog. If we see him in a movie, it’ll be six years before we see him in another. It gives us time to miss him, you know? (Take notes, Johnny Depp).

Well, he’s back in full-force this year, so I think we can safely assume that he really wants an Oscar. After all, he’s starring in two potential award contenders this season: Captain Phillips (about the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009 off the coast of Somalia) and Saving Mr. Banks (about Walt Disney convincing the writer of Mary Poppins to let him make the book into a movie). The real question is which one will he be nominated for? (Because you know the Academy can’t resist The Hanks).

Here’s how Sony describes the plot: “Captain Phillips is director Paul Greengrass’s multi-layered examination of the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama by a crew of Somali pirates. It is—through Greengrass’s distinctive lens—simultaneously a pulse-pounding thriller and a complex portrait of the myriad effects of globalization. The film focuses on the relationship between the Alabama’s commanding officer, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), and his Somali counterpart, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Set on an incontrovertible collision course off the coast of Somalia, both men will find themselves paying the human toll for economic forces outside of their control.”

You might remember hearing about the Maersk Alabama hijacking in the news back in April 2009. It dominated everything else for days because it was one of those “F*** Yeah, America!” media explosions. The American cargo ship was hijacked by four Somali pirates (who, by the way, were around high-school age) while on its way to Kenya; and though the Alabama crew followed all of their piracy procedures and ended up getting the pirates off of the ship, the pirates managed to take Captain Richard Phillips hostage. Naturally, the U.S. Navy was not having that shit. They tried negotiating, but that didn’t work, so the Navy SEALs came in. And when the Navy SEALs come in, that’s it (Remember Zero Dark Thirty?).

It was pretty incredible how effectively the SEALs team managed to take out the pirates and rescue Captain Phillips (hence the “F*** Yeah, America” thing I said earlier). But here’s the thing: This movie, rather than repeating the news story we all heard four years ago, managed to give us a new angle that a lot of people probably didn’t think about—why these young Somalis hijacked in the first place.

Sure, director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray made Captain Phillips look like the traditional American hero (a loving husband and father doing his duty to protect the people around him). But they also painted a depressing and honestly human image of the Somali pirate leader Abduwali Muse (pronounced “Moo-say”). It helped, too, that they had an amazing actor playing Muse. His name is Barkhad Abdi, and I’ve never seen him in a movie until now, but I think he deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance in this movie.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates truly aren’t “terrorists.” They don’t hijack ships to kill people; they want money. In Captain Phillips, Muse, along with his team, hijacked because it was the only opportunity available to them. Seriously, imagine that for a moment. To survive in your country, you have to resort to crime. Abdi (with the help of the screenwriter) portrays this conflict extremely well, especially in the conversations he has with Hanks’ Phillips about how there is no other path for him and how he’s “come too far.” Honestly, I’d say this movie is a better commentary on piracy and African crime/warlords than it is on the heroism of Captain Phillips.

Speaking of our title character, Tom Hanks does a great job with yet another role. But that’s not really surprising to you, is it? Throughout the movie, Phillips is the calm embodiment of rational thinking, and that’s what ultimately keeps him alive. Still, I have to say the last five minutes of the movie—where Phillips is taken onto the U.S.S. Bainbridge and examined by a Navy doctor—is the most tear-jerking moment of the entire movie. Hanks shows so many emotions in that one scene—relief, fear, depression, happiness, shock. Watching him cry as he is constantly asked if he’s okay was just so powerful. You’ll have to see for yourself, but I have a feeling you’ll agree with me.

I do have two complaints about this movie though. One is that it’s long. I don’t know what’s with this Hollywood trend of making movies over two hours now, but I’m not a fan. Remember the line “Brevity is the soul of wit” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Well, I’m rewriting that to “Brevity is the soul of a good movie.” I did get a little bored with Captain Phillips at times because it dragged. Now, whether that was because the plot really was dragging or because I already knew the story, I don’t know. However, my boyfriend did make a good point about the drag. He thought that the movie did this on purpose to show us exactly how long all of these events—which happened in such a short period of time—felt to Captain Phillips (Clearly, I’ve trained him well in movie critique).

The second complaint is, of course, the handheld camera. I’m still not onboard with handheld shots (Ha! Nautical pun). It makes the entire movie unnecessarily shaky, which makes me want to stop watching because, ouch, headache. I know a lot of people like this technique because it seems more realistic, but I’m not okay with it. I come to the movies because I want to escape reality, not watch it (which is ironic given the subject matter of this movie).

Overall, Captain Phillips is an intense (somewhat fictionalized for entertainment) rehashing of the original Maersk Alabama story from 2009. Tom Hanks as title character Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi as Somali pirate leader Abduwali Muse give some seriously good performances. Just know, though, that if you’re only going into this movie for an “F*** Yeah, America!” feeling, you might be a little disappointed. There’s some of that when the Navy SEALs show up (because they’re badass). But the movie focuses more on the desperation of the Somali pirates, who had no other choice than to hijack the Alabama and take Phillips hostage. In my opinion, I thought that actually made the movie more interesting because it gave us something to think about. My only real complaints about the movie are that, at times, the plot felt slow, and the handheld camera shots got too distracting.

As for awards nominations? I could see a Best Actor nod for Tom Hanks, a Best Supporting Actor for Barkhad Abdi (who was just fantastic), Best Adapted Screenplay (from the real Captain Phillips’ book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea), and maybe a Best Picture? What do you think?

Captain Phillips: A-

For my radio review of Captain Phillips on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 24:08 mark).

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