Paul Greengrass is a very polarizing director. His previous two films, “Green Zone” and “United 93,” covered the beginning and middle of the United States War on Terror and in a way, “Captain Phillips” is a spiritual successor to both of those films.
He continues to use his documentary-style cinematography to give a raw visual look to the film and to tell a real story with real characters that avoid becoming archetypes.
On its surface, the story sounds simple. On April 8, 2009, a small team of armed pirates off the coast of Somalia overtook the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) used his wit to get the pirates to leave the cargo ship in a lifeboat, but he eventually became a hostage to the Somalian captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi). This leads to a four-day rescue operation between the U.S. Navy, the pirates and the crew of the Alabama.
The two lead actors playing the opposing captains carry the whole film, which is even more amazing given their backgrounds. Tom Hanks is a multiple Academy Award winner, but Abdi, who is actually an immigrant from Somalia, has never acted in a film before. But here, they are pitched as equals, two quick thinkers, locked in a game of mutual respect, trying to outthink one another. This relationship brings crucial tension to an otherwise slow first half of the film, that comes around to build a tense closer.
Hanks is always a reliable actor, but he has rarely been as powerful as he is here. The film is about heroism, but he brings this to the film through his wit rather than action. Still, he is almost outsmarted by Abdi, who avoids turning his character into a stereotype and adds a depth to the character that almost makes you root for the pirates.
The character of Muse is also the biggest problem with the film, as he is almost too good. Greengrass tried to humanize the pirates, but in his success he takes away from the film’s narrative. By delving into the character’s past and exploring why he works as a pirate, we are given a more in depth character, but a story that lacks a hero. Toward the end of the film, you will start to feel more sympathy towards Muse, as we watch everything around him start to fall apart. We see a character that at first only wanted money, but eventually only wants his own freedom.
There is a lot of context that is missing from the film. The actual hostage taking was a large political issue that was heavily covered by the media before any military action took place, but in the film, we see none of that. Greengrass keeps the film tightly focused on the two captains, and because of this the narrative loses a lot of potential tension.
Still, there are moments of pure brilliance in the film, specifically the final act. The military standoff in the final part of the film comes the closest to the nail biting tension that a film like this should invoke. The fact that this is based off a real story does not change the outcome of these scenes. We know how each scene will end, but watching how we get to those endings is the real beauty.
Most of Greengrass’ films usually create a divide amongst its viewers; you either love it or hate it. “Captain Phillips” is the exception to this, as it features some fantastic characters and heart pounding moments, but features a very weak narrative that lacks proper pacing. It just drifts in between brilliance and dissapointment, without fully reaching either side.