Movie review: 'Captain Phillips'

Truth is stranger than fiction.  Sometimes truth gives us plotlines that violate everything in the Hollywood screenwriters’ handbook.  What to do with the story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking – an amazing, harrowing, historic event from just a few years ago, which unfortunately plays its entire third reel inside the cramped confines of a lifeboat waddling slowly toward the Somali coast with a hostage on board?  

If this were a fictional plot, screenwriters would caution against squeezing the big drama of the cargo ship hijacking into that itty bitty orange tin can, obliging audiences to spend the better part of an hour watching four Somali pirates scream at each other while the US Navy lines up a daring hostage rescue.  They might suggest turning the improbably story of that tiny pirate band attempting to seize a massive cargo ship, with no clear idea of how to profit from their prize, into a beak Cohen Brothers comedy.  They’d question the wisdom of having our hero stage a daring escape, only to be recaptured while a fleet of Navy vessels looks on helplessly, unable to intervene in the sudden chaos without risking harm to the hostage.

But history played out as it did, so “Captain Phillips” is a no-nonsense, stripped-down recreation of improbable events that makes for gripping cinema, even if it’s not quite sure what it wants to say about the events it portrays.  There’s not much in the way of editorial commentary, very little background on any of the major players, including the eponymous hero played wonderfully by Tom Hanks.  It doesn’t take long for the drama to begin.  We barely get to know the Maersk Alabama crew before they’re struggling to repel armed boarders with water cannon.  When the situation degenerates into a hostage drama, the ship and crew vanish from the story, never to be revisited.  

It’s a documentary-style exercise in restraint – actually, a true documentary would probably have included interviews with the major players and biographical details.  Instead, “Captain Phillips” drops the audience on the ship and breaks all hell loose around them, anchoring its sparse narrative with Hanks’ excellent portrayal of the unassuming hero, and an equally compelling performance from Barkhad Abdi as the pirate leader.  The villain is not romanticized, sentimentalized, or excused in any way.  He constant reassures both victims and adversaries that he and his men aren’t terrorists, and everything will be okay, if someone would kindly hand him a satchel full of cash he can bring back to his elders.  The pirates are almost as workmanlike as the Maersk Alabama crew.

Which makes the arrival of the Navy and the SEALs all the more amazing.  Captain Phillips is a real, believable hero.  The SEALs are real, unbelievable heroes.  Watching them work, while a highly competent and professional Navy keeps the situation under control, is as astonishing as any special-effects monstrosity unleashed on the summer blockbuster screen.  Captain Phillips’ reaction to the end of his ordeal is entirely believable, and deeply moving.  People who see this movie are going to be walking around for days saying “Execute” to each other with stunned expressions on their faces.

Perhaps when you’ve got a story as remarkable as the one “Captain Phillips” tells, it’s best to take this minimalist approach and let history do the talking.  I overheard some audience members remarking that the would have liked some sort of epilogue, to give them a bit of emotional closure with the characters.  But I’d say Tom Hanks, at the top of his game, is good enough to give us a full movie-load of catharsis with a few lines of dialogue.  This isn’t a “message” movie, but it sends a strong message nonetheless: if you’re in trouble, anywhere on the high seas, pray to God you see a United States Navy vessel coming over the horizon.  And if you’re a troublemaker, open your engines up and run, before they see you.

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