Based on the real-life story recounted in his own book, Captain Phillips tells the tale of a group of Somali pirates who hijacked a cargo ship and eventually took the eponymous Captain Richard Phillips (portrayed by Tom Hanks) captive in an attempt to make some quick money. Regardless of how true-to-life this retelling is, the film is intense and powerful, and it contains two of the better performances of the year. It gets a touch repetitive in its final third, but for the most part, Captain Phillips is a very thrilling experience. It’s also a little scary, given that this event did happen.
The film begins as a normal couple of days for Richard Phillips. He says goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener), meets his crew, gets aboard his ship, and learns the route they’re to take. They have to sail close to Somalia, where pirate activity is relatively common. He has his crew instigate a drill designed to ward off pirates. Directly after this, two blips appear on the radar. They are being chased. They are not faster. They are going to be attacked.
This leads to a solid chunk of time where Phillips attempts to outsmart and outmaneuver the pirates. He is successful … once, but soon after the pirates are back and even more determined to get on-board. If you heard the real story, you’ll know that they do board the ship and eventually take Phillips hostage in a lifeboat. Everything up to this point is extremely tense. Nail-biting tense. The entire crew is at risk, and while the pirates seem to have respect for Phillips, his life is also constantly put at risk.
All of this works very well. The pacing is tight, what we see on-screen is tense, and there’s an ever-present danger. It’s all new and stressful, and there’s little repetition. One wrong move could lead to the death of all of our good characters. This all comes apart once the pirates are on the lifeboat with Phillips as their hostage. For this setup to work properly we have to be fully invested in Phillips — as he’s now the only “good guy” who is in any danger whatsoever — and also believe that any wrong move he makes could mean his death.
I suppose part of the problem comes from the fact that this is based on a true story, and knowing the outcome ensures that some of the tension the film wants to generate is more than likely going to fall flat. It takes a great film to pull you in even thought you know what’s going to happen, and Captain Phillips isn’t quite good enough to do that. Even ignoring that, though, this final section is repetitive and doesn’t attempt to generate the same type of suspense that the earlier portion does.
What this final portion does allow for is a couple of great exchanges between Phillips and the pirates, who are led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Abdi is a revelation here. This was his first film role — and his first real acting role, actually — and he not only stands toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks but actually outshines him in some scenes. His incredible performance coupled with an intelligent screenplay by Billy Ray makes the character deeper and more sympathetic than he should be. Abdi captures and commands the screen.
Still, what’s supposed to be an emotionally powerful and thrilling conclusion just doesn’t work all that well, and given that a good third of the film — at least; I might be underestimating how much time this part takes up — is set in this lifeboat, the film can’t be called an unequivocal success. It works because its first two thirds are so good and because Hanks and Abdi are fantastic. As a thriller, it can’t keep the level of suspense it establishes at the beginning. It loses steam and never recaptures its earlier success.
The film does justice to the story of Captain Richard Phillips. That’s what its main purpose is and it succeed at this. It gives us an almost documentary-like look into the situation that happened in 2009. It feels real, and it will give you a new-found respect for the people who have to take ships anywhere close to pirate territory. Some stories don’t conclude as nicely as this one.
Captain Phillips was directed by Paul Greengrass, who most people will know from the second and third Bourne movies. The shaky-cam is present here, although it’s not nearly as bad and it helps makes you feel like you’re at sea. It’s initially distracting, in part because there’s no action right at the beginning, but you get used to it and it does help with the immersion. Greengrass makes the whole film feel incredibly authentic, which is one of its best strengths. You feel as if you’re watching an actual pirate hijacking.
While it doesn’t sustain a great amount of suspense for its entirety, Captain Phillips is a mostly successful retelling of a real-life Somali pirate hijacking that took place in 2009. It gets a bit dull and repetitive once the action transitions to the lifeboat, but the entire production feels very real and you will remain focused on the screen thanks to the fantastic work of Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Captain Phillips is worth seeing, but don’t expect a thrilling conclusion.