'Captain Phillips' Movie: Tom Hanks Thriller Misses Forest for the Trees

Captain Phillips Tom Hanks SomalisCaptain Phillips movie with Mahat M. Ali, Tom Hanks, and Faysal Ahmed.

'Captain Phillips' movie: 'Incomplete' and 'less than completely satisfying'

In Paul Greengrass' thriller starring Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips, the titular Captain is a merchant ship's skipper whose cargo vessel, the MV Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates in March 2009. The event became worldwide news in nearly real time after the Captain was taken hostage by the pirates, who fled the merchant vessel in one of its lifeboats. In short order, the four pirates, with Captain Phillips under armed duress, found themselves pursued and surrounded by several American naval war vessels intent on preventing the Captain from being taken to Somalia – the inference being quite clear to all.

Mostly adapted from the Captain's memoir – a book with the unwieldy title A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at SeaCaptain Phillips is conversely taut and slack; culturally savvy and naive; politically astute and manipulative; emotionally sincere and embarrassingly overwrought.

Given the source material, Captain Phillips is skewed towards the Captain's recollections. Fair enough: to the victor go the spoils, and the Captain survived the harrowing events; so he is the one who gets to tell the story. However, this approach does not necessarily make for the best storytelling, and it certainly does not make for a complete story – even if true. Harrowing as it is, Captain Phillips mostly feels incomplete and thus less than completely satisfying.

'Captain Phillips': The two captains

Despite its title, Captain Phillips begins with two captains preparing for work on different sides of the planet. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener, in a thankless role) chat about ordinary things as they make their commute: the weather, the kids, the future. Meanwhile, in a Somali village near the shore, a former fisherman named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) picks a crew for his excursion into the same waters. There is no talk of the weather or children or the future. These things do not matter in Somalia.

We know the two men will meet, we know what will happen, we even know who will survive. None of this knowledge directly undermines the film's events. Paul Greengrass is known (and was perhaps hired) for his ability to tell stories about historical events and imbue them with a sense of urgency.

Director Paul Greengrass: 'Cinéma vérité style' creates 'sense of immediacy'

In fact, Captain Phillips bears the definite look and feel of a Paul Greengrass film. Its cinéma vérité style had previously informed the director's work as a documentarian, his early TV dramas, and mostly notably his 2002 film Bloody Sunday, an account of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre of Northern Irish activists by the British. Shot in documentary style, Bloody Sunday had a sense of immediacy that was appropriately disturbing.

Similar techniques are seen in Greengrass' Bourne films and even in The Green Zone, which is set in the early days of the second Iraq War. But mostly notably, they can be found in his depiction of the events of September 11, 2001, on United 93. It's a stylistic stamp and it's effective – even as it becomes ever more familiar and thus less interesting.

'Captain Phillips' 'misses the forest for the trees'

Yet, style is not Captain Phillips' central problem; the film simply misses the forest for the trees. Captain Phillips is about the fate of the titular Captain. Again, a reasonable subject, but it's the one question we already know the answer to. As previously noted, this was a worldwide news event covered in nearly real time, and the Captain wrote a book of memoirs.

So, among the issues to be explored regarding the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama, the Captain Phillips filmmakers chose the least interesting angle. A more interesting question would have been: Why are these fishermen now pirates when for decades they were content to be fishermen? In fact, this very question is raised and dismissed by Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray in a matter of four or five lines – and that's it. Instead, in Captain Phillips we get United 93 on a container vessel with a slightly better outcome. Fair enough.

Captain Phillips (2013). Dir.: Paul Greengrass. Scr.: Billy Ray; based on Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty's book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea. Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Catherine Keener, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Omar Berdouni, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky.

Mahat M. Ali, Faysal Ahmed, Tom Hanks Captain Phillips photo: Sony Pictures.

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2 Comments to 'Captain Phillips' Movie: Tom Hanks Thriller Misses Forest for the Trees

  1. Dan O.

    Personally, this movie worked in ways that I didn't expect. Mainly, I was just happy that it made me feel tense and on-edge almost every second, even if I already knew the outcome prior to seeing it. Good review Tim.

  2. kkurman

    that's it? it “feels incomplete and thus less than completely satisfying.” and yet, from reading this the only complaint is that there wasn't enough, needless, explanation of the obvious. really? yes, thankfully there were only about five lines of dialogue spelling out what led the pirates to pirating, but there were countless other clues, radar images of crowed shipping lanes, conversations with Muse in the lifeboat about being “not just a fisherman” which went to his 'character' and seemed a little heavy handed to me at the time but were obviously missed. We've been subjected to a rash of feeble movies this year and you must admit, this was not one of them. I found the storytelling tight and well paced. ok, it may not have beaten every bush of reality, but its a movie and a good one at that. And it was beautiful, you forgot to mention that, beautifully shot and edited. Perhaps you might have mentioned that there was no reference to the fact that the Commander in Chief at the time was Barack Obama. This was a choice on the part of the filmmaker, for a reason probably. Were you at all disturbed by the audience cheering when four people were shot dead? Or how about something about Tom Hank's performance? I'm not a fan but wow, he tagged that guy and, despite the affectation of the accent, showed some very palpable FEAR! All in all it was a good movie, it was good entertainment and, if we were paying attention, we learned a little about something that before we didn't fully understand. That to me is as much as we can expect, and it gave it.