There are two reasons to watch that movie. For one it’s a rather unique hostage scenario. And secondly it’s about how true piracy works these days and you want to know the background stuff to what truly happened in the events that this movie is trying to portrait. For me personally it was the latter point.
The movie is about a Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), Captain of a container ship that carries food and other smaller goods. Early April 2009 he and his crew start a shipment from Oman to Mombasa. The route they had to take is constantly under attack by pirates from the near Somali coast. Nonetheless it’s relatively safe if you stay on a specific route that’s protected by military. We learn that the crew seems to be new and not too happy with the new captain. That is at least the vibe I got from the movie. Phillips isn’t necessarily a bad captain but he seems a little ‘cold’. He also orders the crew to check the ship’s security measures a second time to avoid problems. We later learn that these measures didn’t do much to stop anyone or anything though. While on track to Mombasa they suddenly discover two fast approaching small ships on the radar. Soon enough they know that it’s pirates. They try a couple of tricks to get away and manage to do so for one day. The next day the pirates attack again and make it onto the ship. Phillips and his crew are doing their best to get them off the ship again. They manage to get the advantage and ultimately force the pirates off the ship, along with the captain. Since Phillips was in the hands of the pirates all the time, he is held hostage and has to follow the pirates off the container ship in a lifeboat. And that’s the point where the movie actually begins. Or let’s say… a second movie begins.
The movie does a lot of things very good and a lot of things very bad. The action sequences and the tension that’s created with the music and the editing works pretty flawless. The director Paul Greengrass is known for his rather dull, almost documentary approach. I can truly recommend his movie ‘Bloody Sunday’ from 2002, about the Irish civil rights protest march that ended in a tragedy in January 1972. You can see where his style comes from. Nonetheless Greengrass is able to produce some striking images especially when he’s working with good actors. Tom Hanks delivers a respectable one man show in this movie. BUt I have to say that his Somali counterparts do leave an impression as well. Once again it’s safe to say that Hanks is certainly one of the best we currently have. Even though I have to say that Phillips as portrayed in this movie didn’t bring up much sympathy. Like I said earlier… his outside appearance felt pretty cold. And I don’t want to mix that up with bad acting. No, this cold’ish feel was acted on purpose I think. Then right at the end when Phillips is rescued Hanks managed to bring his A-game playing a character that’s close to falling apart. That then was the only time I had a ping of sympathy for him. He did go through hell with what he experienced.
The movie generally has a sympathy problem since I have my problem with the pirates as well. Now the movie is over 2 hours long but maybe an additional 10 minutes, to explain the exact motivation of the pirates, would have helped a lot. Instead we get some hints and throwaway lines throughout the movie. If you are a kinda intelligent human being then you know that these poor people aren’t pirates for fun. The western world ruined their livelihood as fishermen and ultimately forced them to become pirates just to survive somehow. But instead of explaining this through a couple of extra minutes they glance over it without bigger explanations. This could have been solved in a quiet moment on the lifeboat when Phillips had enough chances to talk to the pirates. And I don’t care if the actual Phillips didn’t do that in reality. There was a chance to educate some people out there. It would have been also a chance to let the characters shine for a couple of minutes aside from all the screaming and craziness, since the guys who played the pirates did a damn fine job. A group of fairly unknown faces that delivered a threatening and frightening performance.
In the end of the movie Phillips is rescued by a military operation that ends it all pretty ruthless and very bloody. The movie still managed to create some tense moments in the later parts of the film. Now you could argue if Phillips is a hero for saving his crew. I would say no, he’s not. He did a Captain’s job. And the crew was also competent enough to use the situations right to overtake one of the pirates which lead to the retreat to the lifeboat. There has also been controversy that Phillips tried to save fuel via a shortcut that lead too close to the Somali coast. And there is a radar image in the movie that suggests exactly that. But verbally there has been no statement about that in the movie. Which again makes it hard for me to build up some sympathy for Phillips.
Ultimately it’s a fairly good movie. It has some incredibly tense moments that have you on the edge of your seat. The camera work is a mixed bag. While Greengrass is the sorta inventor of the shaky-cam style… it’s overused in the movie. You know folks… I miss the movies where steady shots made you appreciate what’s actually on screen. Unfortunately the movie fails to deliver a worthful message other than “don’t fuck with the western world or we’ll send in our SEAL teams!”. The four pirate characters were interesting enough to explore a little bit more. But it seems they willingly let that one go.
It’s worth a watch but don’t look for a deeper meaning or a bigger message. Greengrass managed to put in some hints here and there but the general public/movie goers won’t read that from the movie at all.