Movie Review: Captain Phillips (Come For Tom Hanks, Stay For The Pirates)

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At the beginning of Captain Phillips we see Tom Hanks (playing the role of Captain Richard Phillips) preparing for a job assignment that will take him across oceans to the other side of the world. We know that his job is to deliver packages, and we see that he’s leaving his loved ones as his wife drives him to the airport. We also have a pretty strong suspicion that this won’t be an ordinary trip for him.

And as soon as we process all of that information we think, “Wait a sec, I’ve seen this exact movie before. It’s called Castaway. Why are they re-showing Castaway under the guise of a new movie? And how quickly do I have to sprint to the ticket window to get a refund?”

But not to worry, fellow moviegoer, because this is nothing like Castaway. In this movie Tom Hanks isn’t accompanied across the ocean by a benevolent, inanimate volleyball, but rather four Somalian pirates hellbent on cashing in on a big payday.

Captain Phillips is an action/thriller based on true events that occurred off the Somalian coast in April 2009. If you remember that time period, it seemed like we were constantly hearing news about American ships getting attacked by Somalian pirates. This movie focuses on the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship captained by Phillips that was bringing to Africa, among other items, water and food supplies to the 3rd world countries.

As alert to the pirating in that part of the world as Phillips and his crew were, their security and escape tactics fail at the worst possible time when four armed Somalians chase down their ship and ultimately board it. At that point it’s a virtual stalemate between Phillips and his captors. The Somalians control things in one sense because they have guns pointed at Phillips and his crew. But they need help and cooperation from that very crew because they don’t know anything about the super-sized ship they just boarded.

The cat and mouse game escalates from the ship to a lifeboat, and Phillips finds himself in the middle of it all as he becomes the asset the pirates are looking to trade in exchange for millions of dollars.

Hanks’ performance was solid, and I’m sure it’ll generate plenty of Oscar buzz, but I walked out of the theater even more impressed by the actors who played the four pirates. And when I learned that none of them had ever really acted before, I was floored. My hunch is that when you see the movie, you’ll agree with me that the actor who plays the leader of this group steals the show and might find himself with some Supporting Actor nominations during awards season.

What the movie does really well is establish the desperate motivation for these pirates’ actions early on. Even though what they’re doing is wrong, you understand exactly how it could come to this.

I also appreciate that the people making this movie fought off every urge to turn the main character into an action hero or superhero. It would have been so easy to fall back on the tried and true Hollywood template of “main character singlehandedly saves the day by vanquishing the bad guys with borderline superhero powers.” They showed restraint and kept Phillips grounded in reality the whole time.

You should see this movie if: You love nonstop tension/suspense enough that you have no problem literally being on the edge of your seat and white knuckling it for nearly two hours. You enjoy Tom Hanks as much as I do, and you’ll basically see any movie starring him. You want to see some unexpectedly great acting performances from some first time actors. You enjoy “based on a true story” movies.

You should not see this movie if: Holding your breath and having your heart constantly pounding are not physical reactions you enjoy experiencing from movies. You hate Tom Hanks. You had a family member actually involved in a pirating situation and don’t want to relive those awful stories or memories. Thrillers are not your cup of tea. You only care for movies that have a big love story and/or lots of humor. Your fear of claustrophobic spaces is so intense that even seeing something like that in a movie will cause you to hyperventilate. You are a jerk who doesn’t like good movies.

On the Ross Watchability Scale (RWS), I give it a 7.5 out of 10.

So if you’re deciding on a movie to see in the theater this weekend, I’d still give the slightest edge to Gravity over Captain Phillips. But that’s purely because Gravity is a movie you must see on a big screen, preferably in 3-D. That being said, Captain Phillips has the better story.

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