Captain Phillips: Nice try, country other than America

This true hero’s tale is a passably made film about a really interesting event, starring fantastic actors who give it their all. So why did I feel like I was the one kidnapped for two hours?

This true hero’s tale is a passably made film about a really interesting event, starring fantastic actors who give it their all. So why did I feel like I was the one kidnapped for two hours?


Don’t get me wrong, Captain Phillips contains many very, very tense moments. But with such a publicly well-known story, the tension is dulled by that nagging voice in the pit of your stomach that says, “This guy isn’t gonna die. The U.S. Navy isn’t going to be bested by pirates. You probably won’t miss anything earthshaking if you go get me some more Junior Mints.” So you sit through a second act that moves at a nautical speed of 1/10 of a knot1 while Tom Hanks…I can’t even tell you what he’s doing, because it’ll spoil the one possible piece of surprising info left in this open book of a film.

Phillips, a real guy with a real goatee who has the singular honor of being played by America’s sweetheart, takes the bridge of the Maersk Alabama, a commercial cargo ship headed for the dubious shipping channels off the coast of Africa. His crew, headed by First Mate Shane Murphy (Michael Chernus), grumbles about his seemingly over-the-top security precautions. Well, the joke’s on them, because Somali pirates are at that same moment headed out in their busted fishing boats with fully functioning automatic weapons to see what the ocean holds.

Hint: it’s not fish.

Well, yes, duh it’s fish. Like, almost all of the fish. But the group of dudes headed up by Muse (short for Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse) want only the kind of fish that carries millions of dollars and shipping containers full of TVs.

Cargo ships. I’m talking about cargo ships, people! Like the Maersk Alabama, for example, which tried hard to deflect the attack by Muse and co. but ultimately failed.

It’s a little confusing at first to understand where our loyalties lie. Obviously we don’t want anything to happen to the man who brought us both Big and Splash, but Muse’s village’s plight in Somalia doesn’t seem too great. Pirating functions like organized crime, in which terrible, powerful guys demand money from less powerful people, who have to do some scary things to get it.

Barkhad Abdi (100% certainty of Oscar nom for best supporting actor) takes the cavalier young pirate from “I’m doing what I have to do in order to keep my family and/or village safe” into “I sort of like this pirate gig!” He’s got a glimpse of compassion, unlike his three compatriots, who have too little or not enough. There’s clearly a mean streak in him, lying right next to his overconfident streak, his rage streak, and his delusions of grandeur streak. Instead of taking a decent deal, Muse runs into some trouble aboard the Alabama, so they jet in a lifeboat. MAYBE NOT ALONE?

I’ve learned that the Navy doesn’t always move as fast as you’d like it to. And then once it gets to where it’s going, all bets are off as to what kind of tactics they’ll use to negotiate. I’ve also learned that movies still have the despicable power of moving this icy old lady to tears. I can’t help it. Every time Phillips mentioned his wife and family (the former appeared for about 4-5 full minutes of screen time total) (Catherine Keener), I teared up like a kid abandoned at the grocery store. It must be really hard to send your spouse out to sea for a couple of months, particularly if your spouse is Turner from Turner and Hooch. Keener, in Captain Phillips, is surely the most underused of any actor ever, as she rattles off a half dozen lines, in a rather vapid manner, then hightails it out of Dodge, leaving a lot of their relationship to our own imagination.

I argue that the lack of character development is this movie’s fatal flaw. It’s watchable, and at times very gripping. Plus, you’ll find yourself really into the whole patriotic aspect of it all. But something rings hollow, and it’s hard to dive in fully to what feels at times like a loosely pulled together propaganda piece.

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Why you should see this movie

It will be nominated for many Oscars, and it’s your patriotic duty to care about both the Oscars and situations in which the Navy rescued a guy.

Why you should stay home

You’re a Somali pirate. You should just stay home in general.

Bechdel Test

It should come as no surprise that Captain Phillips is a sausagefest. Women tend to not go in for gun violence and kidnaping, I guess.

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  1. I’m no sailor. Is that a slow pace? Just translate to some nautical speed that means “akin to the painfully slow progression of a dehydrated elephant.” 
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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