‘Captain Phillips’ (2013): A Film Review

By Max Conoley, Editor

Photo: Columbia Pictures
Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips

There’s no denying that Captain Phillips is a superbly made biopic. Paul Greengrass’ distinctive lens captures a powerful, immersive portrayal of the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by a group of Somali pirates after they hijacked the container ship Maersk Alabama in 2009. This film gets a lot of things right. But it also comes across a few speed bumps along the way.

Captain Phillips can essentially be broken up into two separate films; the first half leading up to the hijacking which could be better, and the second half regarding the tense situation between Phillips and the pirates in the cramped quarters of the lifeboat which is flawless.

Tom Hanks hasn’t delivered a performance that has received serious Oscar buzz in years and, I’ll be honest, he is fantastic in this film… at times. Like I said, the second half fires on all cylinders and he has never been better. He attempts to hold his composure while the tensions flare among his captors is some of the best acting I’ve seen all year. But in the events leading up to that, his performance seems a little forced, as if he is giving an imitation of Phillips rather than being him.

Also giving terrific performances are Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali, as the pirates. None of these men had ever acted before and were selected from approximately 700 candidates. Needless to say, I think the casting director nailed it. There has been Oscar buzz for Abdi’s performance as the unspoken leader of the pirates, but I wasn’t as impressed with his individual performance as I was with the scenes involving all of the pirates arguing over their next move.

Screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) does a good job at structuring the scenes. It’s clear that the dialogue is an integral part of this film, unlike most action thrillers made these days. What I don’t understand is why he didn’t delve more into Phillips relationship with his family, or why he even included it at all. The film opens with Phillips conversing with his wife (Catherine Keener) on his way to work. He sends an email to her while on the ship after the first hijacking attempt, and that’s it. It really confused me as to why they decided to use this at all. I did find it funny that they billed Keener second in the credits, even though they weren’t listed by order of appearance.

Paul Greengrass is best known for making action movies with a lot of shaky cam and that is evident again in Captain Phillips. Shaky cam normally doesn’t get on my nerves and Greengrass is one of the few directors to have mastered the technique. Of course, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) should be credited for using it to its utmost effectiveness. There are times when the movie would be better off titled “Claustrophobia: The Movie”.

I know people challenge the accuracy of the film. Some of the members of Phillips’ crew have reportedly stated that Hanks’ portrayal is way off. They have said that the real Richard Phillips knowingly put his ship and crew in danger by ignoring reports of pirate attacks in the area and sailing within the recommended 600 miles from the Somali coast. I understand where they are coming from, but I just wanted to see the movie.

All in all, Captain Phillips is a great film to watch. But some unnecessary scenes and slow pacing for the first hour or so hold it back from being so much more. But it’s still a real thrill with good performances, outstanding camera work, and a finale that will leave you speechless and seeking a cardiologist.

FILM GRADE: B

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