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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Captain Phillips

Let's start with a non sequitor. The only kind of reality-TV shows I watch are cooking competitions, but I watch a lot of them. And there are a few generalities that occur on every one of those shows; one of the most prominent occurs when a chef creates a "duo" or "trio" of items, hoping to showcase one ingredient in a few ways. Unless both items are perfect, this tactic is usually a mistake. One dish may be good, but if the other is even better, why didn't the chef only present his or her best? The presence of 2-3 items invites the dish to be compared against itself, rather than the dishes of other chefs, and it often is. It also creates an opportunity for 2-3x more mistakes and criticisms.

All that to say, based on a true story movies are kind of like those duo and trio of food items, for me. I'm comparing the movie against other movies and my expectations for a narrative story. I'm also comparing it, consciously or not, against the true story that inspired the movie, annoyed with irregularities and omissions, scouring the internet for the truth after the movie. Most of the time, I feel like I would have rather seen a documentary instead of a re-enactment.

Captain Phillips is a based-on-a-true-story movie that documents the kidnapping of Richard Phillips, captain of MV Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by Somali pirates in April of 2009. The movie stays fairly close to Phillips' first-hand account of events, detailed in his book: A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea. It also plays out basically in the same way the news coverage portrayed it, filling in a lot of small gaps and details that weren't available at the time. (Whether Phillips' first-hand accounts are completely accurate is potentially up for debate; there is currently a lawsuit filed by 9 of the 20 crew members against Maersk Line Limited. The crew alleges Captain Phillips was actually the one who put them in danger by acting recklessly and choosing a course that put them in harm's way, despite warnings of pirates in the area). 
While I'm not a huge fan of this genre of movies, Captain Phillips does a good enough job finding that happy medium between plausible storytelling and good pacing. It's hard not to compare it to last year's Argo, in that it deploys high and relentless levels of tension. Unlike Argo, I was more engaged by the actors and their performances than I was gripped by the story. I'm not sure if Captain Phillips will be up for Oscars, but if it is it will certainly be in the lead and supporting actor categories. 

Hanks does an excellent job inhabiting a character that isn't incredibly fleshed out in the script, but the break-out star of this movie is Barkhad Abdi, who plays the pirate leader Muse. Abdi was formerly a cab driver and amateur actor living in Minneapolis, which has a high population of Somalians. When casting calls were aired on Minneapolis TV stations, Abdi showed up and landed his first professional acting gig. But you wouldn't know he was a newcomer based on his performance - he is probably the most convincing part of the entire movie, Hanks included. Abdi and the script bring depth to Muse, thankfully portraying him as a real person, more nuanced and relatable than the storybook Disney villain a less careful director could have made him. 

Overall, Captain Phillips is solid centerpiece for Hanks and Abdi to give some of the better performances I've seen this year.  It's also a well-told story that serves its purpose, but at the end of the day it felt a little bit hollow - very procedural, action-based, trying to tell this story from as many sides as possible, while not really going into any uncharted territory. I give it a B. 

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