By Bob Garver
“Captain Phillips” is a movie that gets progressively better. It starts out almost painfully bad and it builds to perhaps the best ending scene of the year. You’ll probably start off feeling pretty smug since the real-life story was big news back in 2009. Obviously, that gives the movie an element of predictability. But somewhere along the way your pride will shrink and your heart will swell. You’ll be actively rooting for Richard Phillips and you may just have some compassion left over for his abductors.
The film follows the plight of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) as he fights to protect his ship and then himself from Somali pirates. We don’t get much of a feel for his personality; we see him with his wife for about a minute, he mentions a son with a questionable work ethic, he has his crew work harder than they’d like; the film doesn’t paint much of a picture. We sure know he’s from Vermont though, because Hanks plays him with a thick, distracting accent. It becomes less of a distraction as the film goes on, I can’t say if this is because I just got acclimatized to it or if Vermont accents disappear when one is terrified.
We get a welcome break from Phillips’ boring routine as the film establishes the pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi). There’s some debate over how much control Somali pirates have in their choice of livelihood. The film sees Muse’s village threatened by a warlord’s goons to make a piracy quota or else. Later in the film Muse and his men talk of bringing in millions of dollars, and they don’t seem to be thinking of a better life, they’re thinking of a single good meal and buying some time from the warlord. These men are doomed in a way that may have nothing to do with being defeated by our heroes.
The pirates attack Phillips’ cargo ship, not even sure of what they want to do once they’re onboard. Phillips does what he can to get them to go away. He offers them money, he offers them a lifeboat, he even wounds one of them and suggests the others take him to go get treated. The method of the injury is taken straight out of “Die Hard,” and I was ready to proclaim this scene derivative until I realized that it is perfectly reasonable to believe that Phillips and his crew have seen the film and used one of its better ideas.
The pirates realize that they can’t control the entire ship so they head out on a lifeboat with Phillips as a hostage. Phillips proves even more resourceful, playing mind games to get water, send out help signals, and even turn the pirates against each other. The situation attracts the attention of the U.S. Navy, which the pirates consider a good thing since these can be the people who get them their ransom money. The Navy of course has different plans and stages a daring rescue reminiscent of the climactic sequence of “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Both Phillips and the pirates become more interesting as their desperation grows. Phillips’s calm exterior slowly fades away as his resilience is tested and the pirates, who weren’t exactly calm in the first place, really go crazy. It all leads to multiple acts of deadly force, followed by a scene that is much less violent and yet much more haunting. This final scene more than makes up for any complaints I had about Hanks’ accent at the beginning of the movie. “Captain Phillips” may build suspense slowly, but it will win you over in the end.
Three Stars out of Five.
“Captain Phillips” is rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance abuse. Its running time is 134 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at firstname.lastname@example.org.