In a time when blockbusters with huge budgets and an over-reliance on special effects are being released perpetually, any attempt to contravene this trend is always welcome. Yet for such a film to be a worthwhile watch, it needs to add something more, like a clever script, or a thrilling story, or a great lead performance – or all three.
Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a sea captain employed by the Maersk shipping company, and a highly-experienced one at that. On this particular journey, he is guiding the Maersk Alabama container vessel from a port in Oman, across the Gulf of Aden and along the coast of Somalia, a country which has experienced years of civil war. It’s a journey that the Alabama is ill-equipped for, since it is poorly-secured and lacking in firepower.
See, because Somalia so war-torn, many of its citizens make a living as “pirates”, often hijacking ships in exchange for large ransoms. One such citizen is Muse (pronounced “Mu-sah”; played by Barkhad Abdi), who has been told to find a crew and partake in acts of piracy. Inevitably, the boat Muse hijacks is the Alabama, so chosen because of its distance from the other ships in the Indian Ocean.
Upon boarding the Alabama, Muse and his crew demand the ship be taken to Somalia. Rather than resist their captors, Capt Phillips instructs his crew to hide, sends out a distress signal and calmly tries to reason with Muse. Doing so is enough to keep the pirates occupied and away from the crew, but the question remains as to how long Capt Phillips can keep their attention, or whether they’ll lose patience.
Captain Phillips is inspired by a real-life hijacking that occurred not all that long ago – those who follow the news may remember hearing about it back in 2009. This reviewer was already familiar with the story before seeing it in cinemas, so most of what transpired didn’t come as a surprise; nonetheless, Captain Phillips is quite a tense experience that keeps the viewer second-guessing, wondering how the characters will act next.
Possibly the best aspect of Captain Phillips is how it humanises the Somali antagonists. Rather than being portrayed as caricatures or stereotypical villains, Muse and his crewmates are sympathised with, shown to be inexperienced people who act out of desperation, not anger. Richard Phillips recognises this – rather than ridiculing their mistakes, he shows the hijackers a degree of compassion, even concern for their well-being.
As the eponymous character, Tom Hanks is his usual solid self, putting in as much effort as he needs to and never any more. It is only in the final few minutes of Captain Phillips, when events are at their climax, that Hanks truly shows his capabilities as an actor. Across from him is Barkhad Abdi in his acting debut – in film or otherwise – effortlessly showing the conflicted nature of Muse, a role which saw him win a BAFTA for his efforts.
Undermining these courageous elements are the problems Captain Phillips contains. One is the pacing, which is quite slow when compared to other thrillers, and stops the film from becoming suspenseful until the last half-hour or so. Less bothersome, and instead amusing, is Hanks’ Irish-American accent, which is supposed to mimic Phillips, but ends up sounding like the world’s worst John F. Kennedy impression.
Although Captain Phillips is not the thrilling experience it could be, it has enough smarts to warrant one’s attention. The acting and screenplay are the film’s greatest strengths, rather than the action, making for a refreshing change from the Hollywood norm.
This film was previously reviewed for YO Bendigo on November 19th, 2013.