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Captain Phillips

October 11, 2013
Captain Phillips

The subject of Somali piracy can easily give rise to any number of interesting stories, so it’s disappointing that when Hollywood finally decides to mine this rich vein for Oscar bait, it comes up with the cheapest, laziest approach possible. Captain Phillips is a Tom Hanks vehicle in the mold of Cast Away: Hanks survives against the odds, while spending most of his time on screen as nearly the only character you care about or actor you will remember after the credits roll.

The story is, basically, true. The Maersk Alabama was hijacked by pirates in international waters off the coast of Somalia. Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) managed to give the four Somali teens the runaround until eventually convincing them to flee in the lifeboat with all the cash the ship had on hand, but was then himself kidnapped in the lifeboat until his rescue by the U.S. Navy SEALS.

The biggest problem is that there is no real tension in the movie. We are literally talking about a standoff between the most elite, highly-trained fighting force on the face of the Earth and four scared kids who — to go by what we see on the screen — can barely figure out which direction of their guns is forward. If military special operations cannot take these guys out and rescue the hostage safely, then, as United States citizens, we have all thrown millions of dollars down the toilet. Sure, Billy Ray stretches the climactic confrontation out, but this tension is entirely artificial, and it shows.

Rather than injecting tension where it doesn’t really belong, how else could we tell this story? Well, we could engage with the social realities on the ground in Somalia that give rise to piracy. There are a couple offhand lines towards this, but they’re easily lost in the shuffle and never really build a real picture of how a kid from a fishing village picks up an automatic rifle.

The movie isn’t really interested in building up the hijackers as characters, anyway. Only Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (Barkhad Abdi) gets developed past a pure caricature, and he’s still pretty thin. While I’m at it, I want to note that I couldn’t see anyone on the crew of a merchant ship or the three navy vessels sent to rescue it with a complexion darker than café au lait; even the African-American crew appear particularly light-skinned, seemingly in an effort to make a clear visual distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. And no, it’s not about the bad guys being black — that much is literally true in this case — it’s about the fact that all the distinctly black characters on screen are bad guys.

Where else could the story go? It could explore the realpolitik that led to this hijacking — a depressingly common event in those waters at the time — turning into an international military incident with the United States president sending in the SEALS. Or it could dig into the effects that these incidents have on the families back home; that’s what Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm did in his far-superior Kapringen — subtitled in English as A Hijacking.

But no, we’re just going to throw out a tepid action flick with lots of scenery-chewing on Hanks’ part. And we’re going to let Paul Greengrass direct it: a man who cannot keep a camera steady on dry land. It’s cheap, and it’s lazy, and the worst part is it’s probably going to be pretty effective at garnering praise.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Juru ◐ Bangla ◐ Nobu permalink
    July 18, 2014 20:56

    Well, it depends on whose version of the story you believe:

    A lot of the details that Richard Phillips himself recollects are quite sketchy, and he tends to rescind many of his former statements. I actually think the crew are legitimate and would therefore tend to side with them, before believing the dubious recollections of captain Phillips.

    While the SEAL teams are vastly experienced and equipped with the latest tech, I would caution that it is always a dangerous task to extract the subject under such circumstances. If it was just about blowing the escape lifeboat, that would be easy. But these guys are tasked with ensuring their main asset is protected whilst having limited visibility and range on their targets in an enclosed vehicle operating at sea. It’s not quite as easy as it looks. In practice, lots of additional difficulties arise.

    I personally think that Tom Hanks is over-rated [waaaaay wayyyyy] as an actor. He basically does the same type of stereotyped caricatures each time I see him on screen. You might hate me for saying this, but I really wanted to shoot HIM in the final scene where he’s spluttering all over the place and attempting to act as though he is so fazed. I hate it even more that he’s such a beloved American personality. Ugh. I think it’s just me though.

    Four thumbs up for this review, because one of the few to actually call it like you saw it. Can’t give you five, because [as cheesy as this sounds] I REALLY loved the part where the SEALS came on the scene. It really got my blood pumping. The SEAL commander had a particularly gruff presence.

    In the end, this movie worked a lot better when I treated it as a Hallmark [TV] action movie.

  2. July 18, 2014 21:36

    Thanks for the compliment. And I agree with you that the SEAL portion was effective and exciting. For me it just didn’t feel like it earned that excitement in story terms. But if it worked better for you, then that’s what matters.

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