I once read, in a book on writing, that one of the best ways to create emotional investment in a character was to put them in a serious situation. Make them undergo serious physical or mental duress, and the audience will likely sympathize with them. I don’t know if this always works, but it certainly did in Captain Phillips, the Oscar-nominated film starring Tom Hanks.
The film follows its title character, Captain Phillips, the captain of a transport vessel traveling through waters off the coast of Somalia. The ship is taken by pirates, who hold the ship, and its captain, for ransom. Eventually, the crew is able to get the pirates off the ship, but they take Phillips with them. As the US Navy tries to buy time in order to get Phillips back, tensions aboard the small pirate vessel rise.
I’ll just say this before going any further: this movie is great. The actors do a fabulous job developing the characters in a script that doesn’t give much time to it. The vulnerability and fear that the crew feels is displayed perfectly. Even the pirates, and their slow recognition that they weren’t going to get their ransom was believable and worked. Tom Hanks gives a good arc to the captain, showing his desperation kick in and his hope for survival fading away.
The way the film does character development isn’t traditional, but it works. Instead of developing the characters primarily prior to them being put in danger, it is the danger that develops them. It’s an interesting approach that I’ve seen utilized before, but, to my remembrance, never better. It works, and it works well. The danger and peril are high, which is why I think it was effective.
If the Captain hadn’t been in quite so much danger, I doubt the development would have been as rounded. As a result, there is quite a bit of peril in this film, which contributes to the overall intensity and “dark” feel. Thankfully, however, the film doesn’t spend all its time emphasizing the darkness, and moves along quite well.
Another thing that struck me as a wise move was the decision to limit the action. By that, I mean that there was quite a bit of news coverage, etc. going on while Phillips was being held hostage. The film could have easily cut away to show some of the reactions of the outside world, but it didn’t. It kept the action, the emotion, and the audience focused on the specific events taking place aboard the pirate ship.
I will say that the shaky camera oftentimes frustrated me. While it worked in some scenes, I found it simply distracting in others. Given that the film was directed by the same person who directed the final Bourne movie (which was also quite liberal with its shaky camera), I wasn’t surprised. Nevertheless, it did frustrate me.
Even with that, though, the film was great. The pacing was good, the acting lent great believability to the entire film, and the script kept the plot focused. I highly recommend you see this film.
Note: This film is quite tense, and on occasion somewhat graphic. Take great care before allowing young children to see this film.