America was swept up by the story of Captain Richard Phillips in 2009 when pirates captured him. This average man, having the courage to do what he could to protect his crew, it was inspirational. However, now that it is on the big screen, the story of Phillips isn’t as compelling since we know the results. Rather it’s these pirates that once again steal the attention.
Obviously, we all know the ending of every true story like this, but unlike last year’s “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Captain Phillips” isn’t able to earn that emotional attachment to the main character, or reveal enough about the actual events to make it as compelling the second time around.
Here’s what the film gives us on Richard Phillips: a horrendous five-minute opening scene between him and his wife talking about absolutely nothing, just generic nonsense on how the world has changed. Then on the ship, we don’t see who he is, we see him at work. Even after he is taken hostage, most of it is him trying to gain any mental edge over his captors he can. Phillips is just a regular guy thrown into an extraordinary situation, sure, but is he really this bland of a person.
Tom Hanks plays Captain Phillips well, but it’s robotic. When he finally let’s loose at the end of the film, it’s incoherent yells mostly. Though, because he is Tom Hanks, don’t be surprised if he ends up with another Oscar nomination. However, it would be a pleasant surprise if newcomer Barkhad Abdi were also to get a nomination, as he gives the film’s best performance.
Abdi, who plays the pirate leader Muse, is the most interesting aspect of the film. Phillips may be the protagonist, but his arc is pre-determined and not all that compelling. Muse’s arc, on the other hand, tells of a young man forced to risk his life by kidnapping ships and demanding ransom so he can earn any kind of living. But he isn’t evil, he is just in way over his head. Abdi is pitch perfect in getting this across. You can tell, every time he tells Phillips that everything is going to be okay, he realizes more and more that everything is snowballing on him. If Muse and his companions were the main focus of the story, it probably would have been a better film.
Because we take everything from Phillip’s perspective though, the sequence of events are again mostly unsurprising, even boring. There are a couple little wrinkles that people probably didn’t know that are well done, but overall, we’re just waiting for him to get into the lifeboat. Then, once we’re in, nothing really happens. A few little verbal sparring sessions and threats are made, but nothing else. Greengrass could have used some creative freedom and allowed for Phillips and Muse to have a few more discussions that would have revealed both men more, but unfortunately chooses not to.
“Captain Phillips” seems content to be more of a reenactment of the events than a movie. Director Paul Greengrass followed a similar formula with “United 93,” but the difference there was no one knew what really happened on the plane on 9/11. It was also a group of people who showed the courage to sacrifice themselves, not a single man, so not getting an idea of who they truly were was kind of the point. But if Greengrass wanted to get the truth of what happened to Phillips and his emotions, why not just do a documentary and ask the man himself?
“Captain Phillips” attempts to provide a similar intense experience of what must have happened. To some extent it does achieve that, but it fails to fully draw the audience in and get the blood pumping because it never feels like this is more than a history lesson of something that happened only four years ago.