This past weekend, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center kicked-off The 51st Annual New York Film Festival, and I was fortunate to secure a ticket to the premiere of the new drama by director Paul Greengrass, “Captain Phillips”, starring Tom Hanks.
When a band of Somali pirates hijack an American cargo ship, they kidnap its captain – but will the Navy be able rescue him or will the pirates kill the captain first?
In the early Spring of 2009, Rich Phillips (Hanks) departed his Massachusetts home to helm a cargo ship from Oman to Kenya. Supplied with a crew of union workers, things began rather ordinarily, until he started getting notifications of piracy warnings in the waters around the Somali Basin. Shortly thereafter, the ship was attacked by two small skiffs, but Capt. Phillips eluded them. Later, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a scrawny member of the group of pirates, shows ambition and courage and quickly evolves into being their leader; the next day, a smaller group head out to siege the ship yet again.
Upon their second attempt, the pirates are successful in boarding the ship and demanding money from Phillips, who had his crew hide in the engine room in order to evade danger from the thieves. Muse, however, correctly suspects that Phillips is playing games with him, so he has the captain take him for a tour throughout the ship to try to uncover the rest of his crew. The crew manages to capture Muse and convince him to accept the small amount of petty cash on hand if they will go on their way; just when it seems as though the crew are rid of the pirates, they abduct Capt. Phillips and take him with them in the lifeboat as they escape.
Phillips’ crew immediately snap into action and chase the pirates after reporting the kidnapping to the Navy, who deploy their own anti-piracy task force to hunt down the pirates. Despite the fact that Muse and his group are greatly outnumbered by a well-equipped Navy force, their poverty-borne desperation drives them to continue on their mission to bring both the money and the captain back to Somalia. But will the United States Navy with all their power be able to bring the pirates to justice or will the kidnappers somehow manage to get away with their crime?
Having started his career as a documentarian, director Paul Greengrass brings with him many of those story telling techniques in the dramatic narrative of motion pictures based on true events – both in “United 93” and here again in “Captain Phillips”. Therein lies part of the problem with this movie; his extensive use of what is apparently a hand-held camera becomes distracting – at times, even unnerving and nauseating (hey, we’re at sea in this story so maybe it was his intent to make us seasick?). Perhaps he did this to create the documentary-like feel or the underlying sense of chaos. An occasional use of the steady-cam might’ve been nice. Just sayin’ …
For what it is – a vehicle for which its star Tom Hanks can appear heroic even while in the throes of being forced to speak with a Boston accent – “Captain Phillips” is quite good and at over two hours, is nevertheless relentlessly fast-paced. While you’ll never be bored, the movie is rather limited in the degree of suspense it is able to maintain – mostly due to the fact that we pretty much know its outcome. The film “Captain Phillips” is based on the book by the real Richard Phillips, “A Captain’s Duty”, his recounting of the attack on the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates and his subsequent kidnapping.
Although Capt. Phillips is portrayed as something of an heroic character in the movie, the real heroes of “Captain Phillips” are the members of The United States Navy, including and especially The Navy SEALS, all of whom execute to perfection a plan that not only rescues the kidnapped Phillips but also captures the leader of the pirate group and bring him to justice back in The United States. As a result of this, during much of the third act of the film, they manage to overshadow the character who is supposed to be the protagonist, the eponymous Captain himself.