Tag Archives: captain phillips

A Pirate’s Life; ‘Captain Phillips’ (2013).

12 Oct

Captain Phillips posterMe nerves! Having just recently recovered equilibrium after the tension-fest that was The Call, I’m called upon to review Captain Phillips and thereby jettison my anxiety levels to another extreme, and not for the right reasons. Why do I do this job?

One could also ask why Captain Phillips (aka Tom Hanks) does his job in this decidedly unpleasant, if absorbing film, which unfortunately forgoes artistic finesse for a gung ho, pro-USA mantra.

The good Captain is a seasoned sailor of the seven seas with a knack for clairvoyance. Following a gratuitous ‘he loves his wife’ opening scene, Captain P sets sail aboard a colossal, Kenya-bound freighter. As the ship approaches the Horn of Africa, a gang of Somali pirates swiftly seizes control before speeding off aboard a sealed submarine-like lifeboat, with Hanks on board. A biopic of the real-life Captain Richard Phillips, this movie draws inspiration from his terrifying 2009 ordeal.

Good docu-dramas aim to underpin what the audience already knows with some revelatory or hitherto unearthed information, as expertly demonstrated by 2013’s Academy Award-rumbling Zero Dark Thirty. Although Captain Phillips concerns itself with atomically smaller stakes (ZD-30 shook us with conspiracies and a likely apocalypse; this has an assortment of skinny men), what really sinks this ship is its unflinching dedication to two-dimensionality.

At dubious loggerheads with the rationale that cargo ships are looted to combat impoverishment, or at least for some mix of socio-political reasons,Captain Phillips paints its pirates as mindless, greedy villains. While the boat’s crew and the Navy SEALS display robotic proficiency at their jobs, and the good Captain himself proves to be the sole benefactor of any characterisation whatsoever, the dead-eyed Somalis behave like hyperactive children on cocaine.

Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the commander of the invaders, is granted a few throwaway lines about the bullying nature of larger nations (who overfish in Somali waters) and his duty to local warlords (who pocket the bulk of the pirates’ plunder), but the rest of his screen-time is spent chewing khat leaves, barking orders and generally acting like a monster. The film submerges any humanising of Muse beneath swathes of inexplicable menace, making Hanks look positively saintly by turn.

Director Paul Greengrass is no blinkered defender of world superpowers – his Bloody Sunday is a thoroughly detailed yet impassioned examination of Britain’s negative legacy in Northern Ireland – but here his portrayal of the heroic white American hero’s immeasurable suffering at the hands of antagonistic African thugs comes off as crass. Sure, the movie sticks to the facts, but the choices Greengrass makes are just embarrassing.

On the surface, Captain Phillips succeeds in giving us two hours of stressfully claustrophobic tension, with the sort of melodramatic ‘old white guy in peril’ role that could guarantee Hanks another coveted Oscar. To deny the movie’s gripping nature would be doing it an injustice, but to label it as much more than star-spangled flag-waving would be an even graver affront to the complex truth that lies behind the growing problem of piracy on the African seas.

Simon says: bring some sea sickness tablets.

[Written for GCN]

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