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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Captain Phillips (spoiler-free)


I honestly don’t see how anyone can truthfully say that this is not a good movie.

It is expertly made by Paul Greengrass & Co, expertly acted by Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, and the rest of the cast, and it is expertly written by Billy Ray.

But my contention is that this is a good movie… sometimes a very good movie… and only for five minutes or so, at the end, is it a great movie.

Considering the narrative limitations of the story, Captain Phillips is surprisingly audience-friendly. You pretty much know the major beats of the plot looking at the commercials and/or trailers. But this is not a movie about narrative. It is about people under pressure, both the people on “our” side and the people on the “other” side. The film forces audience members to consider all kinds of choices, most of which we will never face in the specific, but which all reflect the kinds of things we make decisions about every day in our boring old lives. What is heroism? What is an honorable choice? Where is the line between desperation and desperation so extreme that is excuses bad behavior?

The core confrontation of the film is between “first world” values about what is important and where the boundaries should be and where the same choices are in “third world” countries. It gets more complex when choices aren’t really choices. For instance, what do you do when you are willing to give up your cargo, but you have real concerns about the safety of the people working on the boat? What choices do you make when you think the outside forces are only worried about stuff when in fact, there are more political issues at play that you haven’t ever really considered?

I guess people read reviews to gauge their own interest in the film being written about. That’s a tough call in the case of Captain Phillips. Some people will find it an absolute bore. (That is not to say that they will not respect the filmmaking, performances, etc.) Some people will hang on every mini-cliffhanger and love the film deeply.

For me, the lack of a hard-pumping narrative engine was fine. It allows the film a chance to breathe. And when the alarm bells ring, the fact that I wasn’t on the edge of my seat felt like a choice by the filmmaker. I was gripped… but I wasn’t exhausted. And as some of the same kinds of things repeat in the late second act and early third, I kind of enjoyed a moment of boredom here and there… since that is the reality of life, even in life and death situations. There are quiet moments. That’s what is so good about the film. But some audiences will not be good with that.

Tom Hanks is really quite excellent, from start to finish. And when he delivers the big punch, towards the end of the film, it struck me as the best dramatic work of his career. Same issue as with the rest of Captain Phillips… it makes sense that he is less emotional (as the film is) earlier in the movie, but that doesn’t necessarily make it audience friendly.

So I can recommend the film to anyone… with a few reservations. I would explain, as I have here, what kind of things might throw you off. And if none of that bothers you, go see a good/very good/even great for a bit movie. And if it sounds like being tortured slowly, I don’t think I could tell you that the experience is going to be any better than that for you.

If you like my taste, go see it.

And I will be fascinated – more fascinated than usual – about how people respond to this film. I don’t really know where it will land with people. More than a little bit of United 93, for better and worse. And so it goes…

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9 Responses to “Review: Captain Phillips (spoiler-free)”

  1. Zulusailor says:

    As a ship’s captain frequently trading in the Gulf of Aden Area, I can vouch for the authenticity of the marine and piracy scenes I have watched in the various trailers. In many respects they are terrifyingly lifelike.

    With all the drama in Nairobi and East Africa over the last few days it has been become especially topical and relevant. For more intuitive background to this sad part of the world and the life of pirates and those sailing in the area, check out Amazon Books – ‘The Megiddo Revenge’.

  2. Sam says:

    “But my contention is that this is a good movie… sometimes a very good movie… and only for five minutes or so, at the end, is it a great movie.”

    That’s okay, right? Howard Hawks’ definition of a good movie was “Three good scenes. No bad ones.” That was his definition of a “good” movie, not a “great” movie, but I suspect many great movies are just good throughout with maybe three great scenes. The point being, if there are no lows to get snagged on, you come out of a movie remembering the highs — especially if that high point is right at the end, where it counts.

    Looking forward to it.

  3. pj says:

    But my contention is that this is a good movie… sometimes a very good movie… and only for five minutes or so, at the end, is it a great movie.

    Nailed it. I’m not so sure the last 5 minutes can redefine the film as a whole but it did put a capper on a performance that looked like it was going nowhere.

  4. Mariamu says:

    Just saw this tonight. Really loved it.

  5. Suzanne Werner says:

    Tom Hanks is a superb as “Captian Phillips”. The relationship between Phillips and his captors is complex and realistic. However, the basis for this tale is just not believeable…….. the premise that a cargo ship of this size would not have its crew armed with some kind of firearms is just plain ridiculous. Anyone who takes any size boat out on the high seas ALWAYS has some kind of firearms!! Get real!

  6. Ray Pride says:

    There are actually laws involved regarding weapons on the sea.

  7. Suzanne Werner says:

    Yes, there are laws about weapons at sea. A ship abides by the laws under whose flag it sails; therefore, American ships have the right to sail with weapons, as long as the weapons are registered. Also, if a ship sails into another country’s harbor that doesn’t allow weapons, there are no problems if the weapons are left aboard and kept under lock and key. I mean, look at the area of the world where Phillips was sailing….what was he thinking not to have at least a pistol aboard such a large ship? This film had great acting by Hanks, but really, this story could not have happened as depicted or else Phillips was really stupid.

  8. Ray Pride says:

    “Now, when a Somali skiff starts speeding toward an armed merchant ship, the guards shoot off flares and warning shots. If it continues to approach aggressively, the guards may shoot out the engine, or even aim directly at the people onboard. Still, most companies try to avoid using force. The Arlington, Virginia–based security company Nexus Consulting prides itself on having deterred eight attacks and over 30 probes “without firing a shot.” New York magazine.

  9. Bulldog68 says:

    Haven’t seen the movie yet, but to those questioning if it actually happened that way, well isn’t the movie based on the book written by Captain Phillips himself? If they had weapons, would they not have included that in the movie?

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon