Movie Review: Captain Phillips (Mild Spoilers)

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Every year, before the Oscars, Gini and I see every Best Picture nominee.  This involves us seeing a lot of depressing movies that we don’t want to.  Why do we do this?
Because occasionally, we get a winner like Captain Phillips.
Captain Phillips didn’t look good in the trailers – noble white guy fights off Somali pirates – and Tom Hanks in the role wasn’t a draw either, as Mr. Hanks is good but too Tom Hanks.  He’s like his own moon, eclipsing himself, where you’re watching a movie and thinking, “Boy, that Tom Hanks is doing some damned fine acting pretending to be someone else.”  (A reaction I had with him as Disney a few times during Saving Mr. Banks.)  So I didn’t think it would be interesting.
Actually, Captain Phillips is two interesting films, and maybe as many as three.
The first film isn’t as engrossing, because sure enough you have Tom Hanks affecting a Bashtan accent, which is conspicuous because you know he doesn’t have one, as a captain getting up in the morning, headed down to the docks, getting his ship ready.  Likewise, the Somali pirates get up in a much lesser house, go down to the shoreline, and pick out the guys who are gonna be pirating for the day.  Pirates, inevitably, meet ship.
And what you get here is something I haven’t seen done well since The Wire.  The Somali pirates aren’t smart, but they are goddamned bright – which is to say, like the gangsters in The Wire, they may not have a fine education, but they have raw brainpower to maximize their limited resources and cause significant trouble for anyone in their path.  When they board the ship, the crew’s job is to hide the rest of the crew so they don’t get ransomed and/or killed, and the pirates’ job is to search the ship to find them. And there’s a surprisingly tense Die Hard-on-a-ship segment where Tom Hanks, lying his ass off, with the Somalis knowing he’s trying to lie his ass off, does his desperate best to mislead a bunch of clever guys who have the significant handicap of not knowing how a big boat works.
That’s fascinating, watching two smart segments facing each other down.
Then the second segment starts, and this isn’t a real spoiler because it’s based on a real-life event – but it is, to my mind, the more fascinating part of the film.  The US government gets involved.  The Somalis had no reason to think the US government would get involved.  They’d ransomed a Greek ship for six million dollars a few months ago (and where’d all that money go? Straight to their bosses), and past US MO has been to just pay the cash, but the unspoken bit in all of this is that the US has finally decided that it’s too damn easy to pirate, and this is where we show people that there’s a cost to fucking with the US.
And when the Navy warships show up, it’s all over.
The movie goes on for an hour after that.
And it’s weirdly sad.  Because these Somali pirates are vicious, and scared, and prideful.  They do not want to acknowledge how little power they have left, because they barely had any to begin with, and now they’re facing down billions in equipment and training versus their stolen-lifeboat-and-automatic rifles.  Tom Hanks stops talking in a Boston accent as he’s reduced largely to gibbering and weeping, and what we see here is how fucking impossible it is to fight the US if they know where you are and they decide to lay the hammer down.
You don’t hope the Somalis will escape – they’re vicious, unrepentant, they’ll do it again.  But you wish there’d been a better way for these poor sonuvabitches, because what you’re seeing is the tail end of their lives where they’re making things as difficult as possible for the US Navy, but literally nothing they do can make it difficult enough.  It’s an exercise in pure ultimate impotency, where the only thing you can do to display power is to kill an innocent or two on your way out – and they’re of mixed emotions on that.
…or maybe not.  What I suspect a lot of red-staters saw was, “FUCK YEAH, EXTERMINATE THOSE PIRATES WITH OUR FABULOUS TECHNOLOGY,” and the movie is distant enough that this, too, is a valid interpretation.  For me, there was a lot of “Christ, what do people get driven to?” and that twinge as you realize that it’s not wrong to shoot Old Yeller in the head, but there’s got to be something wrong with delighting in it.
And in the end, Tom Hanks brings the Oscar.  He has a very brave scene at the end, and I’ll say no more than that.  But I forgot the accent, forgot that it was Tom Hanks, forgot everything, because he lost himself in the role in a major way, and that scene alone might have been worth the film.
It wasn’t the best film, but it sure kicked up a lot more feelings than I thought it was.  And that’s why we watch the Oscars.

1 Comment

  1. Not to mention what drove the Somali pirates to piracy in the first place. Do you know this story? Once the Somali civil war started (the one that is still going on, the one that dates back to before the US got its butt handed to it in Mogadishu), Chinese companies realized that the Somali Coast Guard was no longer on the job, no longer protecting Somali waters. So they brought in the biggest drift-net trawlers that the world knows how to make, physically shoved aside the local fisherman, and quite literally strip-mined the sea everywhere within even plausible sailing distance of the Somali coast. And refused to stop when they got caught.
    That makes the Somali pirates almost the good guys, in my opinion. They are, to a man, fishermen who were being deliberately starved to death by multinational corporations, and no nation on Earth was willing to stand up to the Chinese and tell them to knock it off. So I don’t blame them for what they’ve done since then. What else were they supposed to do, lie down and voluntarily die, voluntarily starve their own children to death?

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