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New film: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips
Dicted by Paul Greengrass

It’s likely that much of the buzz this week will continue to swirl around "Gravity" – with that film’s greatest accomplishment being its visuals, set in earth orbit. And it really is worth raving about on those terms. But "Captain Phillips" is also technically quite excellent and it manages to score more on an emotional level than the space adventure.

Tom Hanks plays the titular role, a long-time merchant mariner. The movie begins with him flying from his home in Vermont to meet his ship – the Maersk Alabama, a heavy freighter tasked with taking a full cargo of shipping containers around the Horn of Africa to Mombasa, Kenya.

The standard international shipping container may be one of the most significant inventions/developments in the history of mankind, along with the clamps that lock them in place and the machinery to lift and place them on ships and trucks. Most of us either take them for granted or ignore them altogether – but we’re dependent on them for much of what we wear, eat, drive, view, etc. And, just as we ignore the containers, we ignore the people who get them to us and the conditions in which they work.

"Captain Phillips" is based on a true story as Phillips, his small crew, and his vast ship traveled through one of the most dangerous shipping channels in the world, passing the coastline of Somalia on the way. There’s very little legitimate, lucrative industry or trade in Somalia, and maritime piracy has a significant place in the local economy, especially for local warlords intent on building warchests on Western ransom payments.

As with most freighters, the Alabama had little in the way of defenses, aside from powerful fire hoses that impede hostile boarding, and an unarmed civilian crew. What follows is an extraordinary sequence of events as Phillips attempts to save his vessel and crew from pirates who, realistically, have few downside risks greater than returning to shore empty handed.

Hanks’ Phillips is a simple, hard working man – an officer with an eye for detail and regulations, not just because it’s the way things are supposed to be done but because he understands their purpose. He’s not a classic hero, he’s a pragmatist in circumstances where pragmatism can seem heroic. If he undertakes great risk, it’s because it’s the most logical thing to do at that point in time.

His adversary is Muse, the leader of one pirate boat. And in his eyes, he’s also following a certain set of rules – he’s been successful in the past and there’s an expectation that crews will give up easily, parent companies or their insurance agencies will pay a ransom, and everybody will go about their business. But failing isn’t really a viable option. In one exchange, Phillips asks Muse why he acts a certain way and Muse replies “I have a boss” – “We all have bosses” Phillips responds (paraphrased from memory).

There’s a gritty realism here, with scenes shot on ships and on the water, and it’s technically excellent. Paul Greengrass is known for two of the “Bourne” movies as well as “United 93” – so he’s got a firm handle on both action and films based on real events. But it’s also emotionally compelling, with Tom Hanks portraying Phillips as an ordinary man, with ordinary concerns, put into extraordinary circumstances.

It’s interesting to compare “Captain Phillips” to Gravity” as both hit screens within a week of each other. Phillips, as a character, is perhaps more like George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski than Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone – he’s the resident expert like Kowalski, but he’s still presented to the audience as a more accessible character like Stone. “Gravity” is visually more epic but, for me at least, “Captain Phillips” landed a harder emotional punch – perhaps because it’s literally down to earth, relatively speaking, and easier to identify with. And, while the ultimate outcome seems likely, it doesn’t directly undermine its own narrative in quite the same way that “gravity” does.

If there’s anything else I might have liked, it might have been a little more background information about the scope of piracy in that region – and the various maritime laws that make it difficult to counter. But, with or without that content, “Captain Phillips” is a remarkable film about a man who found himself forced to act remarkably.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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