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Film Review: Odd couple makes 'Captain Phillips' work

In which Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks, but we also see the pirate's point of view.

October 10, 2013
  • Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."
Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain… (Courtesy of Sony…)

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.

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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.

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