Cool Things: Captain Phillips

Warning: Do not watch this movie if you do not deal well with stress.

While the packaging for Captain Phillips doesn’t have that warning anywhere on it, I really think it should. If you’re not sure who Captain Phillips is, or why a movie based on real events that happened to him should perk your interest, here’s a quick recap:

Richard Phillips was the captain of the Maersk Alabama when it was attacked by Somali pirates. He and his crew resisted as best they were equipped to and eventually got the pirates off their boat. But the pirates took Captain Phillips along with them as a hostage. It would take a Navy SEAL team to get him back.

The best genre to put Captain Phillips in would be thriller, but that does a huge disservice to the movie and the real man it’s based on. Perhaps the best way to think of it is a character study that runs over two and a half hours long. Or maybe it’s a meditation on the responsibilities that come with leadership. Or maybe it’s just a study of how good men stand up to hard times.

Phillips is not a particularly brave or exceptional man – and I say this in much the same way that Tolkien begins stories about hobbits by noting that they are not particularly brave or exceptional. Rich Phillips is a normal man with kids to worry about, a wife to worry with and a job where he’s spent many years working his way up to middle management. He’s a normal guy who’s job just so happens to involve moving cargo around the Horn of Africa.

I’m not going to dwell on the plot a whole lot, since it’s pretty much ripped straight from real events. It doesn’t have to be believable – it happened!

The cinematography, something I don’t usually dwell on in these segments, is ideal. It’s got that slightly jittery, almost homemade feel that reemphasizes to us that these are not your usual Hollywood glamourized characters.

Tom Hanks as Phillips gets to do something actors are almost never allowed to do – talk like a normal person. He hems and haws his way carefully and deliberately through his lines, not because he’s uncertain but because that’s exactly what fits a man who’s whole life has revolved around making haste slowly, so that the deliveries are made on time. There’s very little glamour in this movie. Frankly, it doesn’t need it.

Everything in this film is so realistic it’s scary. From the early laidback attitude of the crew to their later panicked intensity, the manic energy of the pirates that slowly builds into complete breakdown, we believe something about what we see that most movies can’t quite make us believe: That this happened somewhere, to someone. That something similar could easily happen to us.

So there’s a lot of nail chewing as the crew of Maersk Alabama struggles to keep the pirates off their boat with firehoses and flares, then sabotages them with broken glass and shorted out generators. But all this pales to the abduction of Captain Phillips and the eventual rescue at the hands of the US Navy.

There’s no way to explain the tension this movie builds. There’s no moment of frantic action, no clever twists of the plot. There’s just the integrity of Captain Phillips and our sense that, whatever happens, we’d like to have someone like him in our corner when our time comes. Like all films that focus on the heroism of a good man, the message is that we should strive to be that person, should the time come.

If you can manage to stand up to a couple of hours of pure tension, Captain Phillips will more than make itself worth your time.

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