ReThink Review: Captain Phillips -- 21st Century Piracy Ain't Jack Sparrow

Earlier this year, I reviewed the fantastic Danish film A Hijacking (my review here), which chronicles the tense, maddening, months-long standoff between Somali pirates, the ship's crew, and the CEO of the company that owns the ship. A Hijacking did well in festivals and is more of a psychological thriller made on a small budget, but now Somali piracy is getting the A-List Hollywood treatment with Captain Phillips, which not only has Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass of the Jason Bourne movies, but battleships, Navy SEALS, helicopters, a pulse-pounding rescue attempt, and, of course, a giant budget. So is Captain Phillips a case where bigger, louder -- and since it's Greengrass, shakier -- is actually better? And do the film's pirates rise above being caricatured villains to represent the real Somalian men who turn to this high risk/high reward way of life? Watch the trailer for Captain Phillips below.

In Captain Phillips, which is based on a true story, Tom Hanks plays, you guessed it, a Somali pirate. No, the role of the lead pirate, Muse, is played by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who fled Somalia with his family when he was seven to a Somali community in Minnesota. The film starts out promisingly juxtaposing Muse and Captain Rich Phillips (played by Hanks) as two men living half a world away who find themselves on a collision course for taking difficult, dangerous jobs to make ends meet in a rapidly changing world.

With reports of piracy along Phillips' route to Mombasa, Kenya, Phillips orders his crew to run anti-piracy drills, which come in handy when they realize high-speed pirate skiffs are chasing them. It's fascinating to see how a crew of 20 attempts to lock down and defend a floating skyscraper, and when the four pirates come aboard, it starts a tense game of hide-and-seek as they attempt to find the hiding crew in the ship's maze-like bowels. While I often find Greengrass' shaky handheld documentary-style camerawork annoying, I feel like it's a good match for Captain Phillips since so much of it is about cat-and-mouse games on a rocking boat in cramped quarters, with a role reversal when the action moves to a small lifeboat and the U.S. Navy and a team of Navy SEALs arrive to put an end to the standoff. It also helps that Hanks, over his more than 30-year career, has retained his talent for believably playing the everyman.

Though in this case, there's maybe too much emphasis on the "every" since, unfortunately, the only thing we know about Phillips is that he's married with two kids and is a competent, responsible captain. Much of what happens is out of Phillips' control, but it would've been nice if he was more than a collection of well-performed reactions, or if we understood more about how his personality and background inform his actions and his take on what's happening.

Which brings us to what we're told about the pirates which, again, isn't much. Muse isn't an entirely unsympathetic character, and there are some tantalizing similarities between he and Phillips as two level-headed guys just trying to do the job they were sent to do who find themselves dealing with rapidly changing and increasingly dangerous circumstances. But that breaks down as the other pirates become more panicky, threatening, and divided as the film becomes more about the Navy operation to rescue Phillips.

And what an operation it is, with billions of dollars of military hardware and manpower landing on these four dirt-poor pirates' heads who, in real life, were all under the age of twenty. This is where, for me, it's hard not to have sympathy for the pirates, especially when you consider something that Captain Phillips barely touches on -- that piracy in Somalia apparently started when Somali fisherman got tired of foreign ships not only overfishing their waters, but dumping hazardous waste off their coast, further decimating their fisheries. This is where Captain Phillips misses an opportunity to discuss the real circumstances that put Phillips and Muse on their collision course, telling a richer story that includes how foreign greed and arrogance led these teenagers to a life of crime on the high seas -- and the first American ship taken by pirates in 200 years.

If I had to pick just one movie about Somali piracy (I can't imagine who would make me do that), I would choose A Hijacking, which I found totally fascinating and maddeningly tense. But Captain Phillips, with its faster and more action-oriented approach, will also have you on the edge of your seat and is a more accessible film, which is also generating Oscar buzz for both Hanks and Abdi. I wish the film had spent more time on the pirates and their circumstances, but it's not called Captain Phillips for nothing.

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