Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Movie: Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi), Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Adapted Screenplay (6 Nominations Total)

Captain Phillips is the story of commercial ship's captain Richard Phillips and his (and his ship's) encounter with Somali pirates, in which he was taken hostage. It's adapted from his book, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. If you dig into it, there's some controversy over this "true" story as to how accurately it was reported by Phillips in his book and in the movie, and whether or not it should have been told this way. I'm not taking a position on that, as I've neither read the book nor dug into the background, but if that matters to you at all, you might consider doing so. Certainly taking Hollywood as the last word on anything historical is almost always a fool's game.

Phillips is played by Tom Hanks, who does a very nice job -- an understated performance right up until the end, where we see him live out some of the shock of his character's experience, and then it goes from simply good to really affecting, particularly if you've ever been close to someone when they've come out of something traumatic. Hanks isn't honored this time with a Best Acting nomination; some call it a snub, but I'm not convinced of that. I think if the field were a little bigger, he'd be included. I just don't know that thus far his performance was one to push one of the others out of the way -- his character, despite providing the name of the movie and being about his experience, is one who stays in the background as much as possible, watching and planning and directing. This is one of the reasons, btw, that his co-star, Barkhad Abdi, has so much room to shine -- and shine he does.

One of the things that Greengrass does not shy away from in this film, to his credit, is rather unflinchingly showing us the rock and the hard place that Muse (Abdi), leader of the Somali pirate boat that boards the freighter, is caught between. All the pirates' reliance on khat (the leaves they chew) to keep hunger away, Muse's skeletal frame, the appearance by the forces of the warlord of the area, the repeated desperation of  Muse's situation, not only for himself but his men (and presumably his loved ones back on land)... this is not a good place to be. Phillips tries to understand Muse but can't, and we can't really blame him -- we saw the Somali shore and the rush to hide the children, not him. He doesn't get what's going on and he won't. Muse's eventual capture is almost a relief, because there is a small voice inside that thinks "at least in prison he'll be out of this hell," which frankly is a hell of a thing to think.

Abdi takes full advantage of the role; we like him despite the fact that we're very sure he can and will kill if he has to. He takes what in lesser hands might have been a tissue paper bad guy and fills him so full of life that it seems his far-too-slender frame might burst from that much determination and pain. His character is a man who should have been so much more than he was, had he been born in another land or another time. He frankly should beat Bradley Cooper hands down. I'm not certain he will, but he should.

I don't see Captain Phillips winning Best Picture. It's not that it's a bad movie -- it's actually very good -- but it's not one of those films that sticks with you. Still, despite my initial reluctance to see it, I enjoyed it and I'd recommend it. I don't think I'd watch it again, but it was worth my time.

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