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Film Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips Review


David Ives - published on 10/11/13

Hanks is back and wreaking havoc on the waves again

So, let's see. In Splash, Tom Hanks fell off a boat and would have drowned if not for the timely intervention of a Mermaid. In Castaway, the plane he was traveling on nosedived into the sea, causing him to be stranded for four years on a deserted isle with no one to talk to but a volleyball. In Joe Vs. The Volcano, the entire island on which he was standing sunk beneath the ocean waves leaving him adrift on a raft in the middle of the Pacific. His shrimping boat in Forrest Gump somehow miraculously managed to stay afloat, but every other seagoing vessel within a mile of it got destroyed in a hurricane. Really, about the only ship Tom Hanks ever stepped foot on that didn't have a disaster befall it was The Love Boat, and I'm not sure that's much of a victory. Let's face it, the man is a maritime menace, a bigger water hazard than a dozen Sharknados combined.

And now we have Captain Phillips starring Hanks in the titular role as the pilot of a cargo ship bound for Kenya. Given his history, who thought this was a good idea? Oh well, I'm sure it'll be okay this time. After all, what's left that could possibly go wrong? Oh wait, pirates. That makes sense. After all, they're about the only naval nightmare Tom Hanks hasn't encountered yet, so it makes sense that they would have to show up eventually. Still, with Hanks recently being named by a (entirely unscientific) Readers Digest poll as the most trusted man in America, certainly he can handle the likes of Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom. What's that you say, it's not those kind of pirates? Captain Phillips is actually based on a real life incident involving modern day pirates, the type who prowl the seas armed with machine guns and hand grenades, not only causing companies over $15 billion dollars in losses each year, but also occasionally murdering the crews they hold hostage. Somebody has got to keep Tom Hanks off of boats!

Of course, if someone had convinced him to stay ashore, we would have missed out on one of Hanks' best performances in quite a while. I don't mean to dump on America's most trusted man too much but, for whatever reason (maybe God has been punishing him for starring in those insipid Dan Brown movies), Hanks' acting has been in a bit of a slump over the past few years. With Captain Phillips, however, Tom's is back in fine form, delivering a wonderfully atypical performance completely void of his usual humor and charm. Since that probably sounds more like a criticism than a compliment, I suppose I should explain.

As the movie begins, Captain Richard Phillips is driving to the airport with his wife while they discuss the problems they've been having with one of their sons. Phillip's concern is simple, if the boy doesn't straighten up, he's going to damage his potential to be a captain himself one day. Phillips, you see, is a man who is serious about work. This becomes very evident once he boards his vessel, the massive container ship Maersk Alabama, and immediately begins issuing orders to his crew. Knowing he intends to take them through dangerous waters, Phillips allows his men little respite, even going so far as to time their coffee break to the minute. He comes across as businesslike and efficient, but also a bit cold and unlikable, very un-Hanks-like if you will.

The movie then introduces us to Muse (pronounced moo-say), Phillips' counterpart among the Somali pirates. Muse is also all business as he goes about selecting the men he needs to act as his crew for the upcoming raid, bypassing some of his starving friends and fellow villagers in favor of those he feels will best fill out the necessary positions. Not enough praise can be given to Barkhad Abdi, the actor who portrays Muse. The Somali born immigrant was working as a limousine driver in Minneapolis when he responded to a local cattle call and landed the role of the pirate leader, yet despite the fact that this is Abdi's first ever acting gig, he pretty much steals most of the scenes he shares with Hanks. Or maybe Hanks just gave those scenes to him. Hanks is, after all, the most trusted man in America, so that sounds like something he would do.

After the introductions, the action moves quickly as the pirates begin their assault on the Maersk Alabama. Phillips assures his men that if they will simply do their jobs and stick to the strategy outlined in the manuals, everything will turn out fine. And at first he is proven right, as the pirates' first attempt to board the ship ends in failure. Unfortunately, on the next day, a mechanical malfunction in the Maersk Alabama's water cannons (during the time period in which the movie takes place, no firearms were permitted on merchant vessels) allows Muse and his men to successfully make their way onto the ship. Phillips also has a prearranged playbook for this scenario, however, and the intentions of the pirates to take the entire crew hostage is thwarted at every turn. Unable to locate most of Phillips' men, Muse finally threatens to kill the few crewmen he does hold captive unless the ones in hiding surrender. Amazingly, Phillips manages to talk Muse out of this by convincing the pirate that such an action wouldn't be a proper business decision.

You know, maybe I'm just imagining it, but while the movie ostensibly becomes a rescue caper (and a pretty intense one at that) for its last 45 minutes or so after the United States Navy arrives on the scene, there seems to be this weird subtext regarding the work ethic of everyone involved that runs concurrent with the narrative. It's almost as if whoever can do their job the best (Muse keeps insisting that piracy is his job) will be the the ones who will prevail in the end. In fact, the appearance of the Navy only reinforces this idea, as every scene a soldier appears has them focusing on sticking to the rescue plan and getting the job done on time. Heck, the movie even ends by telling us that one of the people involved in the incident returned to work shortly after the situation was resolved.

I'm not criticizing the subtext, if indeed it's really there (I freely admit reviewers can occasionally have too much film theory on the brain). After all, work is important to mankind. The Catechism plainly states that "human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty… [and] honors the Creator's gifts and the talents received from him." So the subtext is fine. It's just weird to see the celebration of a "job well done" as one of the underlying themes in a Hollywood production, that's all. With that kind of message, as well as a darn good performance to back it up, I'd have to say my trust in Tom Hanks has been restored a bit. Not enough to vote him the most trusted man in my country, mind you, but certainly enough to look forward to his next film.

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