...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Pirates. For most Americans, the word conjures up images of scruffy men with eye patches or maybe a wooden leg or two. Pirates seem to be a phenomenon of the past—something that couldn’t exist in the modern world. When Somali pirates boarded an American ship in 2009, however, the theory that piracy only exists in legends and history was capsized. Instead, piracy seems to have evolved to fit the times, surviving with the addition of guns and radar technology to track target ships.
Why would modern Americans, mostly safe on dry land, care about a movie that tells the story of the hijacking? That question is answered in the film Captain Phillips. Director Paul Greengrass employs his raw, organic style and smart pacing to make the retelling of this true-life event not only engaging, but remarkably intense, so fraught with tension that viewers may forget to breathe. Though hijacked by offensive language, Captain Phillips succeeds in telling the terrifying story of a real-life hero worthy of admiration and emulation.
Richard Phillips’ schedule for the day may seem unusual to most people. For Rich, driving with his wife to the airport and boarding a flight for Oman is business as usual. Rich goes on long, international trips frequently as a ship captain, yet, as his wife comments, it seems like the traveling only seems to get harder. Rich boards the cargo ship under his command, the Alabama, and starts out from Salalah Port, en route to Djibouti and Mombasa, around the horn of Africa.
Knowing that he’s about to lead a ship into the waters near Africa makes Rich uneasy. He cautions his crew to keep the pirate hatches locked and to tighten security. Receiving a piracy alert prompts Rich to run his crew through a piracy drill. The crew runs the drill on slow-speed, obviously thinking their captain is being a bit paranoid.
Their attitude changes when two boats are spotted rapidly approaching the ship. Rich’s concerns are realized when it becomes clear that the boats carry armed men. Pirates. Warned that this is not a drill, the crew launches into the “real world” response to try to prevent the pirates from boarding the ship.
From then on, the crew and their captain are in a fight to survive, up against Somali men who have their own problems and lives to protect. Such circumstances bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. It’s a long and heart pounding ride before finding out whether the best or the worst will win.
In an era when big-screen heroes can be hard to come by, it seems inconceivable to have two films with admirable heroes release back-to-back. Yet, a heroic sacrifice in the recent piece, Gravity, is followed by Captain Phillips, which is aptly named after an ordinary man who did something extraordinary.
As the captain of the Alabama, Rich is supposed to be responsible for the welfare of everyone on his ship. When the worst happens, Rich proves that he takes his job seriously. Multiple times in this film, Rich selflessly puts himself in harm’s way to protect his men, even if doing so requires that he make the ultimate sacrifice—his life for theirs.
Rich suits the hero bill in other ways, as well. He is a family man who thinks of his wife and children above all, even jeopardizing his life at one point just to write them a final letter. Yet, this film makes it clear that Rich is not what one might call a born hero.
He’s an average guy, as viewers see in his realistically dull conversation with his wife in the car and in the annoyance of his crew members when Rich gets after them for taking long breaks. The inspiration, then, comes through the development of Rich’s character when the rough waters appear, and Rich proves that anyone can be a hero by doing what is right, no matter the cost.
While Rich’s heroic example is powerful enough to deliver an inspiring message on its own, this picture throws in some bonus heroes. Other members of the crew show their mettle and willingness to put others before themselves, willingly risking their own safety to help their crewmates. When the U.S. Navy becomes involved, the heroes start flooding in on all sides as one acknowledges the sacrifices that these men and women make, as well as the risks they take, to save, protect, and serve people in danger.
The impact of the heroism displayed in this tale is multiplied tenfold by the approach Greengrass takes to the material. With his handheld camerawork, tight shots, extreme closeups, as well as the sets and lighting that reject any hint of Hollywood glamour, Greengrass plunges his audience into the world of the story. That world is actually made up of two parts, as Greengrass uses his same trademark style to show the pirates’ lives when they are at their village.
There, the pirates are bullied and threatened into more piracy in a rough, dog-eat-dog world that pushes them to be the toughest or die. These scenes uphold the authenticity of the film, as the actors speak the Somali dialect (translated with English subtitles) and are surrounded by realistic props and locations.
The Greengrass style serves this film well, heightening the suspense to a seemingly unsustainable level that he still manages to continuously build up to the end. Even more tense than the edge-of-your-seat production Gravity, Captain Phillips leaves viewers feeling almost as much in need of resuscitation and recovery as the victims in the actual story.
That said, the shaky camerawork and extreme, moving closeups are arguably not the best choices for productions that are going to be shown on full-size theatre screens. The intimate closeness of the camera seems like a good idea in concept, but, in reality, results in an image that is difficult to fully absorb when shown so large.
Viewers may find themselves missing the complete vision of the screen while their eyes struggle to make sense of the sudden mass of a face or attempt to focus on the constant movement that can render images blurry at times. Viewers prone to motion sickness should sit in the back rows to avoid an unpleasant side effect of the jerky shooting style combined with the up and down movement of boats on open water.
There are two sides to the debate on the Greengrass style, however, and advocates would be right in pointing out that Greengrass does, as mentioned above, use this approach to increase the storytelling power of Captain Phillips. The empathy felt by the audience is also due to convincing acting performances. In the title role of Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks may have been uncomfortable with Greengrass’s approach to filmmaking, but the pairing seems to have been magical for both actor and director.
To say that Hanks gives the best performance of his career in this film, as some have claimed, is no overstatement. This role demands range and high skill from an actor, requiring him to play “normal” (often the biggest challenge for actors), as well as to cover the gamut from subtly anxious to severely distressed, from pain and horror to shocked relief and uncontrollable emotion. Hanks delivers in all the categories, even in a few moments when weak dialogue could have prevented a lesser actor from succeeding.
With so much going for Captain Phillips, the disappointment is all the greater when the film is held hostage by offensive language. Always unnecessary, these words undermine the integrity of the picture, particularly since they are not limited to obscenities. Jesus’ name is abused three times and God’s the same number, twice combined with “d--n.” About ten obscenities are thrown in, including the s-word, “a--,” and “h---.” Spread over 134 minutes of film, this amount of foul language does not seem as excessive or troubling as in some movies, but should still be a consideration for anyone thinking of watching Captain Phillips.
Other potentially problematic content includes the pirates’ use of khat, a plant they chew that is used as a recreational drug. They also roll and smoke their own cigarettes in between giving the film all of its violent moments. There are many threats of violence, mostly with the pirates holding guns to heads. Men are also punched and otherwise beaten. These moments are brief and tactfully cut away from so as not to become too graphic. The victims have minimal blood on their faces afterward, but the most blood comes from injuries that occur off-screen.
One person injures his foot, and viewers see the foot still bleeding several times after the incident. In one scene, a massive splattering of blood is shown, but the actual violent act that caused the blood is, again, left to the imagination rather than the camera. Thanks to the filmmakers’ efforts, most of the violence contained in Captain Phillips avoids being gory or graphic, while the one exception is treated respectfully with all the horror the moment deserves.
If not for the wave of offensive language, Captain Phillips could earn a recommendation for teens and adults. With the profanities and obscenities, however, viewers should consider carefully and proceed with discernment if choosing to watch the film. For those who decide that Captain Phillips is a safe choice for them, they can expect to encounter a suspenseful seafaring adventure filled with heroes, an epic battle of good vs. evil, and an unexpectedly moving conclusion.
Once you get your breathing back to normal after seeing Captain Phillips, you likely won’t ever forget it. Hopefully, that memory will omit the cussing and honor the heroes.
Check out these similar titles:
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 2009)
The Hiding Place (World Wide Pictures, 1975)
On the Waterfront (Columbia Pictures, 1954)
For more ideas, visit our What to Watch page!