The one issue with movies based upon real life events is that they are subject to the constraints of the real human lives they are depicting.
In the case of Captain Phillips, we follow alongside Capt. Richard Phillips as his ship, the Maersk Alabama, is attacked by Somali pirates. The depiction of the events that occurred is top notch, dynamic and entirely engrossing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the characterization of Phillips in this movie.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I am trying to knock Tom Hanks down a peg, as I really am a huge fan of many of his performance. In Phillips though, it doesn’t seem like he has a lot to work with.
This partially comes down to the story itself. Phillips spends the majority of the movie in a reactionary role, which is to be expected with him being a hostage. But, even prior to that, there isn’t much time given to flesh out more dimensions of who Phillips is. The audience doesn’t get much of an opportunity to see beneath the surface.
This comes down to the writing, either the script itself or the source material they had to pull from. But Phillips comes off as a journalistic, impersonal representation within the film. If more leeway had been given to allow a bit more emotion or insight into the character early on, it would help the audience to buy into him as the protagonist much more. And it would have given Hanks that much more fodder to use in creating the character.
Without this, the points later in the film, where we see Phillips break emotionally or attempt to connect to the audience, seem forced. It doesn’t seem to build naturally, it instead just erupts and leaves us asking “Why?”
Note: Storyline spoilers to follow; skip down to the bold text to continue.
One prime example of this is when Phillips decides to attempt to escape from the life boat. Given that Phillips was so calm and collected an controlled leading up to this point, it seemed completely out of character for him to take the risk to shove the armed pirate and jump into the ocean and swim for it.
Now, I know they are restricted to the real-life occurrences, but more needed to be done to show Phillips building to taking this brash action, especially when he knew that the situation would be coming to a close soon anyway. Not enough was layered in the characterization prior to this to allow the action to make sense.
Contrasting the plain representation of Phillips is the dynamic portrayal we see if the three pirates holding him hostage, especially that of the leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi).
With the pirates, more screen time is devoted in the beginning of the film to explain how they are forced into hijacking ships than is devoted to developing Phillips. Muse especially stands out, attempting to lead his crew to a huge payoff in order to earn less attention from the warlords demanding they earn more money.
As a newcomer onto the scene, Abdi does a phenomenal job of playing a character that should be despised, based upon our prior knowledge of the situation, and with skill turns it into one of the more sympathetic and believable characters in the film.
In fact, the one thing that Captain Phillips does extremely well is to turn what many believed to have been a black and white situation and display the various levels of grey within it from the four main antagonists. We have the previously described leader Muse. Along with him is Najee (Faysal Ahmed), who disagrees with Muse’s more lackadaisical approach to dealing with Phillips and wishes to command the situation more force, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), whose injuries are tended to by Phillips and ends up sympathizing with him to some extent, and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali).
It is through these additional characters that we start to build understanding with. From the lifeboat sections onward, they also bring out more of the characterization of Phillips, which is much needed.
Spoiler-free from here on out.
Overall, the action in the film is handled extremely well. Director Paul Greengrass’ pedigre (the latter Bourne films and United 93) comes out in full force. At times, the shaky camera feeling can get a little in the way, but it wasn’t every completely incapacitating. The pace of the action sequences is very sound, going from one piece to another and building suspense and intensity deftly to the climax of the various scenes.
The film does hit a few lulls at points, dwelling too long on conversations that could be more succinct and too the point, helping to keep that forward momentum moving towards the conclusion.
All in all, Captain Phillips is a solid film, aside from the title character. The fact that a good amount of character is missing from the way the character of Phillips was written almost gives credence to some of the discussions following the film that the man in real life does not live up to the legend surrounding him. If those pieces of character were left out by Philips in the writing of his memoir, that would actually explain completely why his characterization in the film feels so incomplete.
Rating: 4 Stars out of 7 Stars – Meh
Buy It: If you are a huge fan of films like Zero Dark Thirty or United 93 that give a bare-bones re-telling of real world events or you thoroughly enjoyed the book the film is based upon.
Rent It: If you were interested in the story back when it happened or you are interested in seeing another, unexpected side of modern piracy.
Skip It: If the only pirates you care about are Jolly Roger or Johnny Depp or you cannot stand films that have poorly defined lead characters.