Arts movie review

The Passion of the Capt’n

Captain Phillips is proof that a movie can feel like a documentary


Captain Phillips

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, and Barkhad Abdirahman

Rated PG-13

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In case you have not seen the trailer — because if you have, you already know the whole plot — Captain Phillips is a movie about how Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) sailed a U.S.-flagged merchant ship, Maersk Alabama, too close to the coast of Somalia, and was hijacked by four Somali pirates with machine guns. The pirates were not too competent in the operation and had to abandon the ship, but not without taking the good Captain with them as a hostage. A few days later, the pirates were killed, and the Captain was rescued by a team of Navy SEALs. That’s it.

I imagine this story would be truly shocking if he were a close friend or relative of yours. I can also see how if he were, say, a friend of a friend, or a third cousin of your wife, his story would still be a great one to tell to friends over dinner. But given that I have no particular acquaintance or close relationship with this man called Captain Phillips, and considering the great scheme of things, the story of his kidnapping and rescue — at least in the movie version — struck me as just one more story in a genre that has seen better.

Some critics have described the movie as thrilling. I even heard some press guys sitting next to me describing how the film created an environment of claustrophobia. It may be because I’m not claustrophobic, or because I’m getting too old for this, but the movie did nothing for me. Don’t get me wrong: I am sure Captain Phillips will be emotionally scarred for life, and I am pretty certain that the maritime industry learned some lessons from the experience. But in terms of entertainment, the whole story of this man’s kidnapping and rescue has the caliber of a made-for-television Hallmark drama.

Tom Hanks, who is without doubt one of the greatest actors of his generation, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance during a short scene when — after the ordeal — he is examined by a doctor aboard a U.S. Navy ship. The way he breaks down, the way he looks lost and cries, shocked beyond words, emotionally shattered, is just fantastic, one of the best performances I’ve seen in my life. Besides that fledging scene, there’s little else truly remarkable about the film. The Somali pirates look positively like what I imagine Somali pirates would look like, but their acting is kind of bland. The same goes for the Navy SEALs, who look the part (strong, professional, efficient) but are a bit one-dimensional. And Hanks himself is kind of “meh” during the rest of the movie.

Throw in some amateurish special effects of the vessels, the fact that not much is happening during most of the movie and — worse — that what happens is exactly what you already knew was going to happen, and the result is closer to a snooze-fest than it is to a thriller. The rescue operation was so disproportionate compared to the pirate threat that I almost felt sorry for the pirates. Captain Phillips’s rescue was as predictable and underwhelming as was the hijacking of his ship, and his days of danger at sea are not even remotely in the same league as other maritime adventures, like that of Shackleton.