Film Review: Odd couple makes 'Captain Phillips' work

Tom Hanks and director Paul Greenglass are an odd couple for the new “Captain Phillips.” Hanks is of course best known for playing the Guy You Immediately Like in slick Hollywood films. Greenglass' signature style — in movies like “Bourne” 2 and 3, “United 93” and “Bloody Sunday” — includes a lot of fast-moving handheld camerawork and a gritty feel. Yes, the “Bourne” movies are big Hollywood productions, but they do their best to break away from the James Bond tradition. When a pre-Daniel Craig Bond runs down third-world alleyways, there is very little sense of the “real world”; when Matt Damon does the same in the “Bourne” films, the locale feels more real, the threats more chilling.

Which brings us to the new film. “Captain Phillips” tells the real-life story of Richard Phillips (Hanks), whose ship was boarded by Somali pirates in 2009. Their motive was strictly a business one, not a matter of ideology; they wanted money in exchange for the captain and crew. Phillips acted compliant while he and the crew — with no guns or weapons of any kind — did whatever they could think of to foul up the pirates' plans, or at least buy time. Eventually, the pirates took off in a covered lifeboat, together with Phillips. The entire crisis lasted several days, ending when Navy sharpshooters managed to simultaneously take out the three remaining hijackers without hitting Phillips.

The movie hits all the major confrontations and the story's general arc while taking liberty with details in order to give the plot more dramatic structure. But the important shift from Phillips' subsequent book is the inclusion of the Somalis' point of view, showing parallels between the two worlds. Among the pirates, Greenglass et al. focus primarily on Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the “captain” and only survivor of the pirate band. The other three Somalis are played by Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali, who all do good work, but Muse is the only one whose view we are invited into.

As a result, the film stays true to the adventure while adding a political context; occasionally we feel the heavy hand of the filmmakers' imposition of this context, but they keep the tone well shy of didacticism.

Hanks comes aboard with a ton of baggage, both good and bad. On the one hand, he's Tom Hanks, so we can immediately empathize with him. On the other hand, he's Tom Hanks, and it's very hard to forget that. A beard, a New England accent and his great talent are not quite enough to have us ever see Hanks as Phillips.

In the midst of all the action — and, believe me, there's a boatload — the most absorbing conflict is between Phillips and Muse, most of it conveyed without dialogue. One of the film's greatest accomplishments is to make Muse sympathetic at the same time that he is the main villain. He tells Phillips that he is not a pirate, just a fisherman trying to make ends meet; he is also the one who shows by far the greatest guilt and doubt. In no way is he whitewashed, but he is shown as human.

Greenglass may have decided to approach him in that manner to head off any thoughts of racism; it is, after all, the story of one heroic white guy vs. four black bad guys. But by giving Muse a complex character and providing reminders of the overall context, “Captain Phillips” softens much of the racial aspect.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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