‘Captain Phillips’ Barely Stays Afloat

Ever since its debut on the big screen, Tom Hanks’ latest effort, “Captain Phillips,” has received unanimous praise. Rotten Tomatoes — a website that assigns a percentage to films based on an average of critics’ ratings — gave the film a 94 percent rating, even higher than “Saving Private Ryan,” another Hanks film, which has arguably become the most popular World War II movie to date. “Captain Phillips” is by no means a bad movie, but it hardly deserves to be viewed as a masterpiece.

As the title may imply, “Captain Phillips” deals with the life of one Richard Phillips, a cargo ship captain operating off the coast of East Africa. The film sets him up as your everyday American breadwinner: Early in the morning he leaves his picture-perfect suburban home to brave the high seas and feed his family which, evidently, only includes a wife who anxiously awaits his return each time; if only their house was on the shore and had a widow’s watch. Think “Cast Away,” minus all recognizable character flaws, as she drops him off at the airport in their mini-van. From the very beginning, the shortfalls of this movie are realized.

The titular character is one-dimensional. And with a character like that, the only possible drama is realized by external conflict rather than within the characters themselves.

Like the film itself, I am drawn towards the notion that Tom Hanks is overrated as an actor. His early career comprises some of his best work, with titles such as “Big” and “Philadelphia” handing him a loyal fan base.

But Hanks’ popularity and skill have all too often been confused. And though he is a master of his craft, there’s still another dimension of acting that he has yet to demonstrate. In all fairness, one of his truest moments as an actor is realized in this film: a good five minutes of Hanks exhibiting raw emotion — a combination of fear, sorrow, panic and gratitude. He executes it flawlessly, but stays within the parameters of his character. At the same time, this scene encapsulates the aforementioned flaw that plagues “Captain Phillips.” Good acting and good movies are not synonymous. You can masterfully produce a movie about a postman’s route to work, and it will still be a bad movie.

On the other hand, the film’s most interesting character is in fact the antagonist, an intelligent and ambitious Somali forced into a life of piracy. Unfortunately, the dialogue he was handed doesn’t do much to develop his role. Repeating the phrase “no tricks” time and time again furnishes the film with an element of loaded predictability, which verges on mind-numbing. If “Captain Phillips” were retitled “Somali Pirate,” you’d have a movie. Instead, we’re left with the cliché story of an average man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, forced to rely on intuition and bravery in order to battle the odds. It’s a story we’ve heard a million times before, and it isn’t even reframed to create something new.

When I went to see “Captain Phillips” in theatres, I expected nothing short of a masterpiece. The hipster in me loathed its popularity because no one talks about some of my favorite movies, which seem to have been steam-rolled by Hollywood blockbusters.

Though the viciousness that this article showcases may suggest otherwise, I didn’t regret my viewing experience, and I went so far as to say, “it was pretty good,” as I walked out of the theatre. But upon further examination, the flaws I noted became more clear to me and after doing additional research, an article in The New York Post suggests that Captain Richard Phillips was not the hero Hanks portrayed him to be at all. Rather, he ignores protocol, purposefully venturing into waters he knew to be unsafe. Even more frustrating is the obvious fact that those in real danger were the pirates themselves, being pursued by the full might of the U.S. navy. The pirates created interesting and dynamic characters — not entirely immoral and corrupt — yet the entire focus of the movie revolved around a middle-aged man who now enjoys successful book and movie deals. Not to mention that any danger he experienced was entirely self-inflicted (at least according to the movie’s portrayal). The danger is really the tragic reality of Somalia, a war-torn nation that relies on piracy as a means to survive.

So, with uncomplicated or at least underdeveloped characters, unimpressive cinematography (there’s not much you can do when everything takes place in the middle of the ocean, where ships only seem to move if you zoom all the way in) and a straightforward hostage plot that narrowly avoids the truth, why is “Captain Phillips” being considered the movie of the year?

— By Charles Kimball 

Photo courtesy of Michael De Luca Productions

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