Review: Captain Phillips (2013)


I’d heard great things, and expected something remarkable from CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. It’s not remarkable, it’s just decent. It’s solidly constructed, well performed, and has Paul Greengrass’ usual aesthetic of a beleaguered former journalist.

The film is based on Captain Richard Phillips’ account of the hijack of his merchant vessel, his capture by Somali pirates and subsequent rescue by US Navy SEALs in 2009. The film depicts the ship setting sail on a routine voyage to Kenya, before a small band of pirates manage to board and hold Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew hostage to demand a massive ransom. When the pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) lose control of the ship’s technical systems, the crew attempt to retaliate, but the Pirates escape with Phillips as their captive, and a logistically challenging Navy rescue operation begins.

It’s the performances that marks the film out. Tom Hanks isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone playing an All-American Boy overcoming adversity, but he makes his mark as Phillips is slowly but surely broken, particularly when his ordeal is over and it all sinks in with heartbreaking impact. Unfortunately for Hanks, he has to share the screen with an outstanding newcomer, and the Hollywood star just can’t compete. Barkhad Abdi, playing Muse, is mesmerising with his haunting stare and the kind of intensity and cunning that can only come from real-life hardship.

The film’s biggest flaw is the script. It’s a case of tell, don’t show, and it’s mildly irritating that Greengrass and his screenwriter Billy Ray feel the need to talk down to their audience. Everything is explained in ludicrous detail completely straight-faced – how the pirate gangs operate, the US Navy’s kidnapping and hostage negotiation procedure, what will happen when the technical systems on the MV Maersk Alabama fail. There’s also been great effort put into trying to balance the different factions’ motivations, but somehow it just comes across as sitting on the fence. I know they’re trying to humanise everyone, but it’s too much, and unusually for a Greengrass film, it slows the story to a halt and actually removes tension from what should be a heart-pounding thriller. Tension never left the BOURNE films, so why does it flitter away when recounting real, traumatic events?

Greengrass doesn’t quite have the fetish for the American military as Michael Bay does, but he’s not far off. Just look at how his camera fauns over the SEALS tooling up before their mission! I guess having a drone’s-eye view on events is a hard-hitting, relevant thing to include, particularly for an ex-journalist, but it still smacks of glorifying military hardware more than questioning the need for its use. In the end, of course, the SEALS did rescue Phillips and kill/capture the pirates, but I’m not convinced we’re getting the warts-and-all story of the operation – it can’t have gone that smoothly!

Captain Phillips does look good, and is very Greengrass-y in its committed docu-style, and it’s really impressive just how much can still be achieved practically in a CGI-dominated world. This team of filmmakers didn’t make it easy for themselves, that’s for sure.

Captain Phillips is technically impressive, I can’t fault the performances of Hanks and Abdi as the two opposing captains, and the finale has undeniable raw emotional clout, but the rest of the film is uninspiring. The screenplay never gives the plot room to breathe, nor does it allow the audience to unearth tension and drama by themselves, and overall it’s just too preoccupied with explaining everything in tedious detail. The script annoyingly veers from lifeless human rights debate to extremes of volume – when the characters aren’t defending/chastising America, they’re either bellowing or whispering to show how stressful their situation is. There’s never any middle ground, no subtlety. Mercifully, Barkhad Abdi can say so much with a subtle change of expression, so he clearly wasn’t limited by the weaknesses of the words on the page. I’ll repeat that Captain Phillips isn’t bad, not by any means. It’s competent, with hints of greatness, but what it certainly isn’t – fatally for a thriller – is thrilling. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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