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Film Review: Captain Phillips

Film Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

Directed by Paul Greengrass

When you think of pirates, you probably think of sadistic men with a peg-leg, eye patch and cutlass pointing you in the direction of a plank, while the parrot on their shoulder screeches inanities. After seeing Captain Phillips, you’ll probably always think of them as wide-eyed, skinny Somali men with yellow, crooked teeth, high on the herbal stimulant khat and brandishing AK-47s.

Captain Phillips puts you inside a mad, dangerous world off the Horn of Africa where desperate men riding dinghies with outboard motors take on a huge container ship, which at first makes about as much sense as a pair of hyenas stalking an elephant. The very fact the pirates manage to board the ship marks the story as extraordinary from early on.

And if it’s tense on board the container ship, it gets even more tense when it’s just Captain Phillips and his captors in a big-nosed lifeboat that looks like an ugly shoe bobbing on the ocean.

The film weighs in at two hours plus and there’s no let-up in the tension from beginning to end. There are no women, either, except Captain Phillips’ wife, who drops him off at the airport at the beginning, and a US naval nurse at the end, who’s almost as scary as the pirates.

This is a film unashamedly pitched at the American market, so when the cavalry arrives it does so in overwhelming numbers in the form of an aircraft carrier, gunships and navy Seals dropping out of the sky. Needless to say, the American military are clean-cut, well-built, heroic-looking types, which suggests that the skinny, wild-eyed Somalis could never be of the same calibre — even if you gave them more firepower and better dentists.

Nevertheless, for a New Zealand audience, this show of military might looks like such overkill you can’t help feel­ing a sneaking admiration for the Africans, whose daring robbery on the high seas has summoned what appears to be half the US Navy to sort them out.

Tom Hanks has been tipped for Oscar stardom for his role as Cap’n Phillips but to my mind he never looks quite scared enough, especially given his mild-mannered persona. Anyone that mild should be a gibbering wreck faced with pirates waving machine guns around on a ship’s deck.

In fact, Hanks doesn’t look suitably terrified until the very end, when he suddenly comes alive and gives a convincing performance as a shell-shocked man — pretty much channelling how the audience feels after being totally absorbed in this adaptation of the true story of Somali pirates hijacking the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama in 2009.

First published in Metro, November 2013.

Film & TV