Overall Rating: B+
There is very little about Captain Phillips that is terribly unique or revolutionary. The best way of describing Paul Greengrass’s achievement in crafting this film is this: Captain Phillips is just like every other action movie and fulfills all of the stereotypes of its sub-genres without reaching higher, but it is certainly the best at doing so in a very long time.
Captain Phillips is the best recruitment video for the US Navy since Top Gun, and it pulls no punches in clarifying that the Navy is its primary subject. From the beginning, we here the titular Captain Phillips talking about the difficulty of rising through the ranks in today’s age. Later, merchant sailors on Phillip’s ship complain that they are not prepared to combat pirates, as they did not sign up for the Navy. Those on the ship who are Navy, as illustrated by the aforementioned line of dialogue, are the kingly protectors in this scenario. Phillips is revered by his men. They entrust him with their lives and obey his every order. They never even call him by name; he is always “Captain.”
This all comes to pass when the ship is approached by armed Somali pirates. “I’m the captain now,” asserts one of them. He is known, not so affectionately, as Skinny. With this, the screenplay makes its first attempt at layering, at reaching a different dimension than the linear narrative allows. This term creates a connection to the troubled history of once colonized Africa, as Skinny was a derogatory term used by the English to describe conquered peoples. Skinny calls Captain Phillips “Irish” throughout the film, referencing that Phillips ethnically identifies himself as “Yankee-Irish.” The global climate metaphorically explored here alludes to a history of western Europeans and their mistreatment of aboriginal races. Now, through the Somali pirates, the natives are striking back. Only once again, they are out-witted, out-numbered and out-armed, in about that order.
Hanks’s Phillips is as well developed as any archetypal hero figure has been in a while. Were it not for the annoying, much less unnecessary, prologue in which he gets a ride to the airport, he would have become even more interesting as a man with no backstory. He, a naval officer, is the only one on the ship who is prepared. He sees the need to engage in training exercises and is the first to spot the intruders, not once, but twice. He does everything right in leading his men in attempts to avoid confrontation, succeeding once, and is by far the most calm and poised at gunpoint. Of course, even doing everything right to combat the intruders without arms is not enough, and Phillips is held hostage to be taken back to Somalia. That is, until the rest of the Navy arrives as if on a flaming chariot to save the day. They are cruel and deliberately lie to and mislead the kidnappers. After repeatedly promising a just and peaceful transfer, they craft a story to take an almost unfair shot at the weaknesses of Skinny and his men. Skinny, also know as Muse and played excellently and passionately by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, is devastatingly vulnerable and essentially trapped by the white man’s foul play. He is loaded onto a Navy ship, and a dragged on and rambling, yet well cut and vitally important action sequence proceeds as the film’s climax.
Action fans will love Captain Phillips for its fast cutting action and prolonged tension, and military identifiers will love it for the way it puts the US Navy on a pedestal and trumpets our superiority to under developed cultures, but cinephiles will feel nothing for it, because we have seen it countless times before.