The Movie Man: "Captain Phillips" could have been better
October 15, 2013, By Tim Fak, Films have long had a strong association with holiday weekends as audiences find themselves with an abundance of free time to fill. Since we’ve just come off of one such weekend, and for Columbus Day to boot, it seems only fitting that this week I should review a film with a nautical theme: “Captain Phillips”. As one of the first true entries in a fall season that traditionally caters to dramas, “Captain Phillips” arrives with a fair amount of anticipation. Ultimately, the film fails to live up to the buzz, but still manages to be a decent film overall.
Based on the memoir of the real life Captain Richard Phillips, this film is a dramatization of his experiences when he was taken hostage by a group of Somali pirates who raided a cargo ship he was captaining in 2009. The basics of the story are probably at least vaguely familiar to most people as the incident was headline news when it happened a few years ago, but the film offers a detailed and fairly accounting of the entire situation from Phillips’ perspective. I suppose you could say the film is structured as a thriller, but since the outcome is never in doubt, I’m not sure that description would be all that accurate. Nor is the film probably all that valid as a historical reenactment as many key elements of Phillips’ version of events are bitterly disputed by some of the members of his crew. Taken on its own terms though, there’s ample solid material to make a strong plot here.
Phillips is played by Tom Hanks in what some critics are calling a bit of a comeback role. Indeed, Hanks, one of the most loved and popular contemporary actors, has faded from the public eye somewhat in recent years. So is all the comeback talk on the money? I’d have to say the answer is yes as this is the type of role that’s right inside Hanks’ wheelhouse and he plays it to the hilt. It’s an exceptionally strong, yet understated performance that carries the bulk of the film and is really one of the best things about it. Hanks’ Phillips isn’t particularly heroic in an over the top sense, he’s just a regular guy thrust into an extraordinary situation and has to struggle along the best he can. He’s certainly played that type of character a number of times in the past, and has a really firm grasp on how to make that work.
The other major role in the film is that of Muse, the leader of the pirates played by newcomer, Barkhad Abdi in what is also a strong and very naturalistic performance. Unfortunately, outside of these two roles, most of the remaining characters in the film were woefully underwritten. Often, I had trouble tracking who was who and how everyone fit into the plot as no one was on screen long enough to develop into a strong, unique and specific character. It’s a frustrating flaw as many of the pirates as well as the members of Phillips’ crew seemed like they had the potential to be interesting characters if only the film were interested in using them to a greater extent.
The area where “Captain Phillips” probably succeeds the most is in building and sustaining a sense of realism. The film was shot on locations either at or near those places where the real events took place. The shipboard scenes were even shot on a ship that was of identical make and layout to the Maersk Alabama, the ship actually involved in the incident. There was clearly a lot of effort put forth to make everything as close to reality as possible, and on that count this film certainly succeeds.
That said, this is something of a double edged sword as what “Captain Phillips” gains in realism, it tends to lose in aesthetic appeal. Most of the film tends to look like it was shot on a handheld camcorder with a flat, washed out and grainy visual style. There also seems to be a concerted attempt to make the camera as wobbly as possible most of the time. I guess this is a fine stylistic choice, and a lot of people seem to like it, but it’s just not my cup of tea and overall I thought the film could’ve been more pleasing to the eyes.
I also felt “Captain Phillips” could’ve benefited from a bit more context to its story. It’s never really made clear precisely why the ship had to sail through pirate infested waters for example, nor are we given any scenes that show why authority makers not on the ship (or the navy cruiser sent to deal with the situation) made the calls they did. The film feels very self-contained, with only the point of view of the people actually on scene represented. Again, this is a deliberate stylistic choice, and not a flaw as such, but it just left me wishing that the film had taken something of a broader scope.
“Captain Phillips” is rated PG-13 primarily for violence and tense situations.
Overall, this is one of those films I struggle to come up with an objective rating for as it did a lot of things I really didn’t like, yet also was a solid drama that I think a lot of people will find satisfying if not great. It certainly benefits a great deal from the fine performance given by Hanks as well as from a true story that captured the public’s imagination. I guess if pressed, I’d have to say this one is not a particularly bad film and mostly does what it sets out to do; it’s just not really to my personal taste.
Rated 2 1/2 stars out of a possible 4