Wow, Peter Pan Really Lied to Us About Pirates, Didn’t It?

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A ship’s manifest. Some family photos. Idle chit chat about how hard it is to move up in the world today. The first few scenes of Captain Phillips rushes through its title character’s life like any other film, with a few revealing personal effects and a telling conversation or two.

But then it does something unexpected – it switches settings to the poverty stricken coast of Somalia. And we hit many of the same points. Family. Work. How hard it is to make it these days. It’s here we meet a second captain, Muse. Muse is a pirate. And he’s about to get way in over his head…

Captain Phillips tells the true story of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship hijacked off the coast of Somalia in 2009. You may remember it from the news, or the fact that for a few months afterwards the world all of a sudden became obsessed with Somali pirates. Either way, I’m not going to give you too many of the details. It’s not the news story that makes Captain Phillips interesting anyway.

No, what’s interesting is the nuts and bolts of it all. The battle of wits that takes place between these two captains. And while it’s obvious from the title of the film alone who its main protagonist is, writer Billy Ray and director Paul Greengrass were smart enough to flesh out the life of their pirate captain as much as his American counterpart. What follows is a fascinating character study of two men from very different worlds, yet with more in common than one might think.

Captain Phillips is essentially two movies in one. The first half of that equation is the hijacking of the ship – and I must say, you’d be hard pressed to find sequences more gripping than the cat and mouse game played by Captain Phillips and Muse as the latter tries to board the Maersk Alabama. Greengrass doesn’t waste a second of screen time as the two captains, rather cunningly, try to outmaneuver the other. The result is a second act that plays like a near perfect thriller.

And when the pirates do finally make it on board – I don’t think I’m revealing too much with that – Captain Phillips doesn’t take its foot off the gas petal. The cramped, dark ship just provides a new location for the evasion and trickery that made the assault by sea so fascinating.

What I especially liked here – no doubt helped by the fact that this is a true story – is that all of these characters are quite smart. And when they aren’t, it’s believably so. Phillips used some truly brilliant tactics to try and shake his attackers, but if Muse wasn’t equally up to the task he never would have made it onto the ship. Both are limited by where they come from in understanding the full picture, but you never find yourself smacking yourself in the head at anyone’s stupidity in these early scenes.

Of course, I mentioned that Captain Phillips was more like two movies in one and the second half of the film takes on a more psychological approach as we’re shown the Navy’s response to the crisis. It’s here where the naivety of the pirates finally comes to the forefront.

On one hand, the scenes on the ship’s lifeboat are some of the movie’s best attempts to explore these characters in all of their interesting detail, especially the pirates. The conversations between Phillips and the younger Muse in this latter half explore many of the socioeconomic factors that make understanding the Somalian mentality so hard for a western audience. Greengrass and the rest of the creative team do a great job of explaining the actions of the pirate crew without letting them completely off the hook.

At the same time though, the latter half of the movie seems to have a little more slack than the first. It’s very forgivable. Frankly, true stories should get more leeway in these sort of matters. I’d much rather watch what actually happened than get the Hollywood version meant solely to entertain. I felt the same way about last year’s Best Picture winner Argo – I would have rather seen something more factually accurate than what we got (though I’m definitely in the minority on that one).

Regardless, I think the real reason why the first half of the movie was that much more compelling – though I must again stress, the second half is also very good – is that in the first half Phillips had the ability to be much more active in his own rescue. In the latter half it’s the Navy doing most of the heavy lifting.

Tom Hanks is still Tom Hanks though, and it doesn’t matter what part of Captain Phillips you’re watching, he delivers a stunning performance throughout. Perhaps more surprising was that of brilliant newcomer Barkhad Abdi (Muse), who doesn’t seem to blink playing opposite Tom Hanks in any of these scenes.

While I’m sure there’ll be some sort of list inaccuracies or eventual backlash to the portrayal of any number these characters, Captain Phillips manages to take a story that had already been told over and over again in the news media and add to it something entirely its own. Keep an eye out for this one come Oscar season.