The Bock’s Office: ‘Phillips’ offers no view from the Captain’s Table
October 17, 2013
If you go
“Captain Phillips,” rated PG-13
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Running time: 134 minutes
Starring: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Michael Chernus and Barkhad Abdi
Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.
Craig — You don't hear much about buccaneers, raiders or pirates being involved in nautical pursuits since most of these rascals live in Tampa Bay, Oakland and Pittsburgh these days. But as "Captain Phillips" shows us, you can't assume the industry of ship-jacking died out in the 1800s just because their modern equivalents don't wear eye patches and carry parrots on their shoulders.
In April 2009, as the U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama embarks on its route from Oman to Kenya, the danger of piracy in the Indian Ocean around the Horn of Africa is almost unavoidable. But with the proper precautions, Capt. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is reasonably certain his vessel will make it into port on time and shipshape.
Still, there's no such thing as being 100 percent safe.
When a group of hijackers begin following them in the water, Phillips and his men do everything possible to keep the small band of Somalis from boarding the much larger boat. But try as they might, the American crew can't prevent the pirates from getting on the deck of the Alabama.
Phillips attempts to keep the situation from resulting in injury or death by placating the intruders' demands in order to get them off his ship as quickly as possible. Their leader (Barkhad Abdi) has bigger plans in mind, though, taking the captain hostage and fleeing in the lifeboat, setting the stage for a standoff with the full force of the U.S. government.
Hanks goes heavy on the Boston accent, enough that the regulars at Fenway Park would call him out on its authenticity but not so much that it overshadows the nature of his character, a mariner who, for all his experience and preparation, never has seen anything quite like this before.
Just think — one minute, you're emailing your wife that all is well on the high seas and the next, a horde of heavily armed Africans in a skiff leave you wondering whether you'll ever see your loved ones again.
Novice actor Abdi brings complexity to a young man, purportedly a teenager during the real-life events, whose desperate actions are easy to vilify, yet you can't condemn him altogether. Known to his comrades only as "Skinny," the version of Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse of the silver screen who keeps a cooler head than his friends and chews khat leaves the same deliberate way Humphrey Bogart smoked a cigarette is about as close a depiction of a modern-day pirate as we could get. Here's a guy who doesn't need an act. He's ready to risk his entire life for a good haul or a ransom because it's not a job he's doing just for the fun of it.
Phillips refers to Muse as "Captain" just to humor him, and Muse returns the favor by calling his captive "Irish," but beyond the nicknames, there's a quick sense of understanding between these two captains, official or not. Both live in a world that's severely lacking in humanity, demanding more and more from them with less and less reciprocation.
Phillips' conversation with his wife (Catherine Keener) at the beginning of the movie, wondering how their kids will be affected by the economic downturn seems superfluous, but in fact, it really gives us a look at how one man has the luxury of worrying if a college degree will go as far as it used to while the other man with whom he will cross paths wakes up on the other side of the world with no food in his stomach and being screamed at by warlords.
And that's on a good day.
Director Paul Greengrass cuts down his standard shaky camera style enough that you won't need Dramamine to watch his latest movie. Adapted from Phillips' account of the Maersk Alabama's ordeals, "A Captain's Duty," Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray bring out the tension of the crisis that caused Americans to say, "Wait, pirates still exist?" in a way that feels serviceable though hardly masterful.
In the end, it's the juxtaposition between Hanks and Abdi that keeps "Captain Phillips" afloat. If you watched enough CNN in spring 2009, you already know the details, but the human element involved in recent events is something much harder to convey.
Plus, what with Jack Sparrow forever changing their image, pirates could stand to be feared again.
Andy Bockelman can be reached at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.