Review: ‘Captain Phillips’
REVIEW BY BURL BURLINGAME / Special to the Star-Advertiser
A band of dimwitted, fanatical thugs hijack a juggernaut and hold the skipper hostage, making insane demands. But enough about Congress. “Captain Phillips” is one of those tales in which everything seems to go wrong despite the best intentions of everyone, and when it comes out all right in the end, it’s because the adults in the room have laid on some hard-earned expertise.
Of course, it’s a true story, at least the kind of true story that Hollywood wishes it could have made up.
Rick Phillips was — is — a commercial freighter captain, making container-ship runs in the western end zones of the Indian Ocean. In 2009, skippering the Maersk Alabama, Phillips’ ship was boarded by Somali pirates and he was taken captive. This triggered a desperate scramble by both the crew and the pirates to survive, and when the U.S. Navy hoves onto the scene, you know things are going to go from worse to simply bad.
“Captain Phillips” is directed by Paul Greengrass, who apparently doesn’t own a tripod. His kinetic, hand-held approach gives the film a documentary feel and rachets up the reality meter. The American actors have a flat, droning way of speaking that makes everything less actorly, and the Somalis are so wild-eyed and tense that they seem to have come from another planet. They’re also half the size of the meaty, beefy Americans; plus, the Somalis are busy chewing khat, the leafy amphetamine that torques up their paranoia levels.
Let’s put them together in a small boat and see if kumbaya breaks out.
The Somalis are, essentially, crazed, heavily armed teenagers with nothing to lose. One of the ironic pleasures of “Captain Phillips” is that the Somalis come across as real human beings, with understandable motives.
But we’re with the Americans, who just want to survive this assault and go home with a few bucks in their pockets. The movie is a reminder that bad craziness can break out anywhere, anytime, and that survival can be a nasty scramble. The movie is incredibly intense, and we’re along with the harrowing 134 minutes largely because of Tom Hanks’ brilliant performance.
Hanks, who has mastered of art of everyman-ness — if not quite a New England accent — has a blistering meltdown at the film’s conclusion, finally letting it all go as a Navy medic quietly and efficiently treats him. (The scene is also a fascinating juxtaposition of acting styles, with a real person “acting” and an actor pretending to be a “real” person.)
The Navy comes off here as vastly competent, just in case you were worried about them after “Battleship.”
Local note: Military technical expertise for “Captain Phillips” was handled by Capt. Rick Hoffman, a Radford High School graduate and a salty veteran of duty cruises in the Arabian gulf.