There are movies that make you wish that you were there, that make you want to experience something you never have before, even if you know it’s fantastic and impossible. Movies that make you think, “Wow, that would be great!” even if you know you might not’t enjoy it in real life. Movies like The Goonies, Tron, or even Star Wars were all like that for me. And then there are movies that make you feel the opposite, that make you feel that experiencing something would be awful. Captain Phillips is this second kind of movie.
That’s not to say it’s bad or anything, or even that it’s depressing. It’s a good movie that brings us strongly into the reality of the characters and the situation, and keeps our attention for the duration. Tom Hanks holds it together with a good performance, and the four unknowns who play the Somali pirates are all excellent as well. And it delivers an impacting impression of numerous elements within the story.
First, in a small way, it makes you not want to work on a merchant container ship, simply by showing the dangers of such a situation and even the fact that the crew must be away from their homes and families for such extended periods of time.
More significantly, it makes you never want to be in a confrontation with Somali pirates. This is a bit obvious, really, but all that it say that you definitely feel the tension of having these armed and dangerous intruders on board your ship. This is nothing like the Die Hard-esque tension that you might imagine (um, I guess that’d more accurately be Speed 2). There’s no glitz or glamor to struggling against this incursion. There is just an overwhelming dread, terror that this could go badly and there’s nothing really that you can do about it.
Worst of all, this movie makes you never want to be a Somali pirate. There is no doubt that these guys are villains, but we also see that they come from a world where they feel they have very little choice. The movie doesn’t go into details, but it’s clear that Muse and his cohorts are simply not able to accept defeat (even with a $30,000 consolation prize), because what waits for them back home is just worst than anything else they are facing, even the US Navy.
Consequently, the movie shifts the focus of tension in a surprising way when the major plot development takes place in the middle: the pirates are pushed back by the crew, and escape from the container ship in a lifeboat with Captain Phillips as their hostage. Up until that point, I was feeling seriously stressed out on behalf of the endangered crew. But that changed after the pirates retreated with their prisoner. Even though Captain Phillips was in a terrible situation, all I could think about while watching the movie was the fact that you knew these pirates were doomed, and that their miserable end was approaching.
Being based on true events, the movie seems to differ from it’s spiritual predecessor Argo in that director Paul Greengrass avoids manipulating events too obviously in order to create convenient cinematic moments at the end. Thus, at the end, there is no final face to face meeting between Phillips and Muse – not even a distant but emotion-filled glance. There is no follow-up to the brief story beat where some of the crew are upset at their employers or their Captain at the dangerous situation they are in. In fact, the movie doesn’t revisit the crew at all, or even Phillips’ family. Instead the movie very effectively concludes with an extended scene of Phillips, in shock, being given a routine but thorough medical examination by a naval corpsmen (whose name, incidentally is Chief O’Brien, even though she has neither curly red hair nor a fetching accent).
This restraint pays off, and helps Captain Phillips as a film, taking what is a fairly routine plot in modern Hollywood sensibilities and turning it into an impressive piece of work.
4 instead of 5 just because some might find it a bit intense