It’s a story that has been told many times before. The American hero struggles to protect his people from the savages that are trying to destroy them. He is a hard man, but kind-hearted, trying to rescue the poor savages from themselves, but not at the expense of his own’s safety. The problem is that the story is getting old. We have seen this before and it has become too predictable. The Americans are inevitably the superior group and their triumph is also inevitable.
Captain Phillips provides yet another retelling of this classic tale, this time set on the Maersk Alabama, a ship commanded by the titular character. The savages are Somali pirates who hijack the ship for ransom. Unfortunately, Captain Phillips has nothing new or original to say. There’s no new twist, or even any new visual interest in the film. Instead, we are given “The Bourne Trilogy 2.0,” with Tom Hanks and no espionage. Director Paul Greengrass seems to have never heard of a steady cam, and the constantly bouncing image creates a feeling akin to sea sickness. The script is generic at best, and the Maersk Alabama crew remain nameless phantoms. They never progress beyond extras, there only because a huge cargo ship requires a crew of more than one. Even Tom Hanks, one of the most likeable actors in Hollywood, cannot manufacture sympathy from nothing. He comes across as flat and dull, not a hero to root for, but a mild-mannered type that has no business being the captain of a ship making a dangerous cargo run. When the pirates finally board the ship, it’s a welcome reprieve from the drudgery that has preceded.
The Somali pirates are what save the film from complete tedium. Played by four unknowns, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali all give performances that transcend the weak script that is determined to keep them subordinate to the US Navy and, of course, the Hollywood star. The energy that they bring to the screen is electric, and they pull focus every second they are onscreen. Where the script fails, they succeed, giving us real people instead of pure villains. Theirs is the story that the film should have told. Why do they live as they do, outside of the law and desperately violent? The answer would have produced a much more satisfying film. Instead, we get another lazy tale of the Americans triumphing over the supposedly uncivilized man, who are the ones with the stories really worth telling.