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Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky, Catherine Keener
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Produced by Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca
Screenplay by Billy Ray
Based on the book, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Tulty
Director of Photography, Barry Ackroyd
Editor, Christopher Rouse
Review by Matt Neufeld
In 2009, an unarmed American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked about 145 miles off the coast of troubled, terrorism-ravaged and unstable Somali by four merciless, cowardly, horribly violent, stoned, starkly thuggish and incredibly stupid terrorists, who, after firing at the ship—firing to kill—and boarding the ship, promptly threatened murder, held the captain and crew hostage and basically terrorized an entire crew of innocent, unarmed mariners. Again, with constant threats to brutally kill anyone who didn’t listen to their demands. Eventually, their dumb, moronic plan—doomed from the start—backfires horribly, and the inane terrorists take the ship’s captain, the humble, down-to-earth and workaday Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), of Vermont, hostage in a cramped, dangerous, tiny, modern-day enclosed lifeboat that, from the start, stands no chance of escape—from the ocean, from the elements, from reality, from common sense, and from the U.S. Navy.
As the terrorists attempt to get the lifeboat and Phillips back to embattled, violence-ravaged Somalia, with crazy hopes of holding Phillips for ransom for a big payoff—again, a dumb plan doomed from the start—the movie devolves into a too-simple search-and-rescue operation, with Phillips and the lead terrorist Muse (American-Somali first-time actor Barkhad Abdi) playing an all-too-familiar captive-and-hostage-taker game of cat and mouse in the cramped, claustrophobic, uncomfortable and eventually unpleasant enclosed lifeboat. And much of the movie is also basically the military’s response, and a waiting game—waiting until the expected final outcome naturally takes place and Phillips is freed.
And that’s basically it—unfortunately. Lacking any real depth, helpful subplots, expanded background scenes, intellectual dialogue, meaningful social or political commentary on a deep level and lacking the overall intellectualism to propel the film to an above-average level, “Captain Phillips”—riding on today’s modern-day budgets, technical abilities and advanced camera techniques—is simply a big average film, or an average big film. The film lacks the much-needed background stories and subplots, and it lacks better, more intelligent dialogue that would have given the film the social-political heft that the filmmakers wanted and were trying to achieve—but failed to maintain on a satisfying level.
The film is indeed taut, gripping, harrowing, suspenseful, well-acted and well-made all around—the technical aspects and the acting are indeed above-average—but without that intellectual depth and backstory, the film is just that—a taut, gripping, harrowing, suspenseful action-adventure thriller. And that’s it—the film is essentially a popcorn movie. So if you’re looking for just that—an action-adventure thriller that is suspenseful–then that’s what you’ll get. The film’s standing is helped—somewhat–by the very real fact that “Captain Phillips” is based on a true story—the real-life Richard Phillips was indeed taken hostage by Somali terrorists aboard an American cargo ship. That helps, of course, but the real-life credence also doesn’t propel the film to higher levels of quality.
Beside the overall lack of intelligent depth to the story, as portrayed in the film, another oddly irritating negative aspect is the portrayal of the Somali terrorists. The four main Somali terrorists who hijack the cargo ship—played by American-Somalis from the Midwest who answered an open casting call by the producers and director—are portrayed as such idiotic, moronic, stoned (they are hooked on khat, a dangerous, addictive controlled substance that causes wildly unstable, moronic and irrational behavior) and, sorry, stupid murderous terrorists, they are simply irritating, annoying and unpleasant to watch. They may be playing up to director Paul Greengrass’ continuing unsuccessful attempts to show realism in stark, open and undramatic ways, but that realism gets on your nerves, annoys you, causes you to squirm—and destroys the enjoyment of the film in very quick fashion.
No, you don’t necessarily want stoned, dumb terrorists quoting Shakespeare or delivering impassioned, eloquent monologues on poverty and Third World societal and financial and political problems in this film’s context, but, lawdy, you also don’t want to sit through their narcotic-fueled, childish, immature and unstable tantrams, rants, violent outbursts, violent tendencies and their complete lack of anything resembling morals, morality, normalcy, tenderness, compassion or intelligence. Even Muse, who obviously is wrestling with something resembling good inside his stoned brain, and a teenage terrorist, who is also obviously wrestling with some good, eventually say the hell with good and they just embrace evil—again, in agonizing, wrenching, unpleasant ways that just aren’t enjoyable to watch.
Actually, even if the terrorists did quote Shakespeare and wax poetic about the social ills tearing apart their homeland—that still wouldn’t mean much in the film’s overall context, and it wouldn’t really mean much in the overall real-life context. There is no good to come from trying to “humanize” dehumanized cowardly terrorists who kill—some open-sea terrorists have indeed committed murder—or threaten to kill, or kick, punch, harm, scar and injure innocent people. These morons know exactly what they are doing—and it’s not good. A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist. And watching them commit violence on innocent, unarmed people for no real reason is just simply uncomfortable and disgusting to watch for the duration of a feature-length film.
The real stars of the film—and in real life—are the brave, courageous and solidly cut-to-the-chase tactical and technical military experts who handled the execution of the rescue of Phillips and the inevitable outcome of the terrorists. The extraordinarily detailed, behind-the-scenes elements of the film that brings you up close and personal inside a Navy rescue destroyer, alongside parachuting and precision-shooting tough-as-nails Navy SEALs, directly next to equally tough military commanders and the tough, split-second decisions that they must make aboard the destroyer, bring a needed sense of morality, correctness, intelligence and real heroism to the film. The various military commanders know exactly what to do, how to do it, they don’t lose their cool, they stick to their game plan, and they exhibit the intelligence and decisiveness that, again, help bring the film back to some level of normalcy, maturity and intelligence. Kudos go out to the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, actual former Navy SEALs who portray Navy SEALs, and the crews of various military ships and helicopters that provided that tactical and technical expertise to the film.
All of that expertise, good acting and good filmmaking aboard real-life military vessels, however, again, don’t save the film from that still-basic mediocrity.
Kudos also to director of photography Barry Ackroyd and Greengrass for actually filming scenes set on the open ocean—on the actual open ocean. The filmmakers, while still utilizing some levels of computer and matte and camera effects, bravely and courageously took to the open seas to film much of the movie. That meant cramped quarters on real-life ships, lifeboats, cargo ships, rafts and helicopters that presented numerous photography and logistical challenges for Ackryod and his crew. But they persevered, and many of the open-seas shots are breathtaking—scenes shot directly on the water, underwater and on the real ships take the film directly to another world of marine life, on the cargo ships, on the lifeboat where Phillips and the terrorists spend much of their time, on the military ships, and on helicopters. One breathtaking shot shows the elite, specialized team of Navy SEALs quietly, yet efficiently parachuting from their helicopter to the open waters below amid the darkness of night. Another telling shot shows the SEALs quietly, quickly and efficiently preparing for their operation—a bit of a clichéd scene, yes, but efficiently done here, and done so quickly you initially don’t fully grasp the meaning of the shot at first viewing. But later, you realize that these behind-the-scenes shots deftly show what, exactly, goes in to a precision-level, expertly-executed search-and-rescue operation in the military.
Yet these military scenes don’t save the film, either.
Finally, somehow, oddly and a bit awkwardly yet still satisfying, the film ends with a brilliant bit of acting by Hanks in a touching, emotional scene after he is rescued. Phillips, at once in shock from a brutal hostage situation where he could have been stupidly, violently killed at any second, at once relieved and happy that the entire ordeal is over and that he indeed survived alive, and at once overcome with emotion and relief as he is efficiently and expertly tended to by professional Navy medics aboard the Navy destroyer, breaks down in shock, relief and pure emotional release, cries, asks for his family, and is so overcome the scene will have viewers overcome as well. The problem is, the scene is wildly out-of-whack with the entire rest of the film—it’s a dramatic acting scene that stands at a weird contrast to the depth-less pure popcorn thriller film that preceeded it. It’s great acting, but it’s uneven filmmaking, and, again, that, too, despite being satisfying, holds down the overall quality of the film.
In real life, Phillips returned to his wife and family in Vermont and, surprisingly, subsequently returned to the seas as a captain in 2010. For the sake of Captain Phillips, his wife, his family, his crews and his co-workers, of course nothing but the best wishes are to be sent his way for a career that remains safe and remains free of any more violent terrorist incidents.
And in real life and in Hollywood, let’s hope that the horrible maritime terrorist threat disappears not only from the Somalia seas, but from all seas. We don’t really need to be subjected to sitting through the agony, the pain, and the violence of watching terrorists commit cowardly acts of violence for the duration of another similar feature film.
Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor, and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 film projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.
Review by Tim O’Keeffe
Captain Phillips would have made a great silent film. If you see the movie, which opens Friday the 11th, I recommend, if you can, watching with the sound off. Plug your ears. Or, like DVD releases of silent films, maybe keep the musical accompaniment, which is effectively heart pounding. I would lose the dialogue, if you can, almost all of it unnecessarily expository, stodgily unimaginative versions of Hollywood script writing 101.
The film, directed by Paul Greengrass (whose oeuvre includes Green Zone, United 93, and the last two Bournes) after a script by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games), opens at its weakest, as it tries to develop the characters. Rich Phillips, the eponymous middle class hero white guy played by Tom Hanks, is from Vermont, loves his family, and just isn’t sure he can do it anymore. The drive from his home to the airport, where he’ll leave for nearly two weeks to captain a ship carrying cargo around the horn of Africa, causes him and his wife (played by Katherine Keener) to reflect on “our life.” They say things like, “Things are changing so much” and “It’s a different world” that make Allstate commercials look like Chinatown. “It’ll be okay,” Mrs. Phillips reassures her captain, and, slyly, the audience.
Phillips’s introduction is juxtaposed with that of his future captor, the gaunt Somali “fisherman” pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi). As Phillips sips coffee and patters away at his Mac, Muse chews leaves of khat, a mild stimulant, and stares out of a dusty window. As Phillips meets his new crew aboard the Maersk Alabama, Muse picks out a new crew among a crowd, even choosing an X factor, especially mean looking guy! “Why did he pick him? He’s from another village,” the dialogue stumbles along.
As their respective ships leave their respective ports, the film itself finally takes off. The story from here is pretty well known. The quartet of pirates with their pistols and machine guns, after some hardship, overtake the large cargo freighter, and its crew of 20. Cleverly banding together, the crew manages to boot the Somalis off the ship, however not without Captain Phillips being taken hostage aboard the freighter’s lifeboat. The rest of the film is the story of Phillips’s rescue, from the perspective of inside the lifeboat, and from the United State Navy team that pulls it off, incredibly, on the water, at night.
With Phillips, Greengrass has finally found a suitable marriage of form and content, not that his form has changed any. Have Greengrass’s films ever really been any good, such that Hanks, and producers Scott Rudin and Kevin Spacey, trust him to make an Oscar worthy picture? (And, have no doubt, Captain Phillips, which opened the New York Film Festival, is Oscar bait.) I think probably the best answer is: sometimes. For one, they can be effective vehicles for Hollywood stars. Tom Hanks, filling in for Matt Damon (who has been the star of the last couple Greengrass films), turns in a great performance alongside relatively new actors of unfortunately uneven ability. Secondly, they are basically Hollywood schlock pop action thrillers with one perceivable directorial stylistic tic: he shakes the camera and zooms in and out. What, in nearly any other directors hand, would be a static shot of, say, a man waking up and getting out of bed, is turned into a pseudo-documentary style handheld-cam-looking shot in which we’re not sure if the cameraman isn’t also just waking up and forgot that he was supposed to be filming. Greengrass always seems to be filming on the bumpiest roads/in high wind/ in an earthquake/AT SEA, and for many viewers, it can cause a nauseating film-going experience. As some 90% of Captain Phillips takes place on boats in open water, finally Greengrass’s shaking of the camera makes sense. After the opening few scenes in Vermont and on land in Somalia, his directorial style is not only not distracting, but extremely effective.
Moreover, his sense of space is particularly helpful to the viewer. He often cuts from super close up shots of an actor talking (usually some dull line like, “they’re not here to fish…”) to a distant helicopter shot above the ships. When Phillips speeds up the Mearsk Alabama to evade the pirates, we literally see the cargo ship speed out of our overhead shot. Even though the film takes place some several hundred nautical miles offshore, you never feel lost, Gravity-style, in all that empty space. In other words, Greengrass’s truly masterful directing here almost always gives us all the information we need to tell what is happening plot-wise. That’s why when the characters practically (not actually) look into the camera and tell us again what’s happening/how they’re feeling, it’s so disconcertingly eye-roll inducing.
Even though the final quarter of the film, can, at times, feel like one long An-Army-Of-One U.S. Military commercial, inducing “Whoa cool, they can do that!?” moments in both the audience and characters on screen , the film ends strongly. And even though you already know what’s kind of going to happen, that it is actually a true story and that the events went down the way they did is nothing short of absolutely impressive, and the filmmaking reflects that.
Maybe, though, watch it in a language you don’t understand. You don’t need to hear all the mindlessly generic dialogue. Trust me. “It’ll be okay.”
Tim O’Keeffe is a writer, and holds a degree in The History and Criticism of Art from Florida State University. He now lives and works in Washington, DC.