Review – Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips Poster

Tom Hanks is Richard Phillips, captain of the first American ship to be hijacked by pirates since the early 1800’s.  Director Paul Greengrass brings this true tale from 2009 to the big screen.

When Somalian pirates board the Maersk Alabama in hopes of collecting a hefty ransom, it’s up to Captain Phillips and his crew to survive.  With resources spread thin, there’s no help coming anytime soon.

Having been a widely covered news story only four years ago, you’re probably at least familiar with the basic story of how Philips himself was taken hostage in a lifeboat, resulting in a race against the clock for the US military to retrieve him before reaching African shores.  This film follows the timeline of actual events pretty closely, ticking off all the necessary plot checkpoints.

This is all Hanks’ show – as the title would suggest, and it’s hard not to imagine that he has his eye on Oscar season as he puts on an intense and studied performance.  It’s all about Captain Phillips and his ordeal.  In fact, we learn almost nothing at all about the rest of his crew.  More time is spent giving back story on the pirates than any of the other supporting cast.  In this case, it works, creating a story that is very self contained, rarely leaving Phillips’ side.

The situation made for some interesting and tense news coverage back in 2009, but played out here, it is incredibly gripping.  Obviously Hollywood has a habit of drumming up drama in true life stories that didn’t quite have the bite needed to keep an audience’s attention.  I don’t think this is the case here.  Very few of the events seem like they could have been fabricated or exaggerated – the film sticks to what happened pretty faithfully, from what I can tell.  A high seas hijacking and kidnapping, ending with military intervention is pretty intense in and of itself, without any embellishing.

If anything has been changed, I would guess that is Hanks character of Phillips.  He is a little too perfect.  He’s shown to be courageous, selfless, and incredibly smart.  Having never met the guy, I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling that he’s been given a bit of a movie magic makeover.  Some accounts place much of the blame of the situation on his recklessness.  In the end though, he was the captain of his ship – a ship he managed to save from pirates.  He did survive being taken hostage by those pirates.  Unless he was just incredibly lucky, he had to at least have a pretty level head to do that, so if his onscreen persona is a little less flawed than in real life, in order to help the audience root for him, I don’t think I mind.

Captain Phillips has the opportunity to be a great social commentary.  It starts to suggest it might stray in that direction with the way it shows the Somalian pirates to be real people, and there are a couple of throwaway lines about how maybe America and the global economy is responsible for driving people to desperate measures, like piracy.  However, it never goes beyond that, sticking to a pretty strict dramatic retelling of events without turning into something else.  It could have been interesting to see it go in another direction, but it is fantastic just as it is.  It’s an edge of your seat real life story about a brave man’s harrowing experience on the high seas.

Despite the fact that the events are well documented “old news”, all of that melts away as the engaging performances pull you in as if it was all happening for the first time, in front of your eyes.  Hanks gives his most emotional performance since Cast Away, going through as many ups and downs as the waves rocking the claustrophobic life boat we spend a good portion of the film in.  The supporting cast of mostly unknowns is also excellent, giving visceral performances and lending some depth and personality to characters that could easily have become generic stereotypes.

Whether or not this is an entirely accurate portrayal of the the people and events surrounding the Maersk Alabama incident, I don’t know.  What I do know is that it feels real – quite real – and at the same time feels like an action packed thrill ride of the best sort.

Mrs. Hamster says:

“It is intense, but at the same time over the top.  I hate where the film ends – it should have ended either five minutes sooner or five minutes later instead of just stopping where it does.”

My Rating – Five out of five hats

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Trailer

Captain Phillips opens in 3,020 theaters, October 11