Movie review: Captain Phillips

Sam Rosenberg

Staff Writer

Paul Greengrass, the 58-year-old director behind this year’s Captain Phillips, has recently been known for effectively conveying intense drama onto the silver screen. His past projects, which include 2002’s Blood Sunday, 2006’s United 93, and two of the Bourne films, have been praised for their brilliant compositions of action mixed with depth and intelligence. Nowadays, it’s very rare to see such films, since most action movies focus too much on the big explosions and less on developing interesting characters or thought-provoking situations. Fortunately, Greengrass fills in this void with the intense, 2-hour biopic Captain Phillips.

Although lengthy and stressful to watch, Captain Phillips’ greatest moments are thanks to Greengrass’ meticulous directing and yet another outstanding performance from a reliable Tom Hanks. Hanks plays the titular character, a cautious but brave cargo ship captain, whose boat is hijacked by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa. When Somali pirates take him hostage during the second half of the film, Captain Phillips finds himself and his crew in a dire life-threatening situation. I was initially doubtful about the film’s ability to maintain the tension between Phillips and the Somali pirates, since most of the second half lacked a consistent tone of thrills between the characters. Fortunately, after some long waits for excitement, the film’s jaw-dropping climax arrived. Without spoiling anything, the climax essentially evoked both an awe-inspiring performance from Hanks and a sense of relief. Captain Phillips ultimately captures the agony of Phillips’ character, providing an inspiring story of persistence and giving the audience a sense of pride for the United States Navy.

The real-life Captain Richard Phillips (circled) and Tom Hanks, portraying Captain Phillips, in the film (background)

Another unique quality that I found while watching the biopic was how, much like his other movies, Greengrass uses a strong and predominantly unknown cast (aside from Hanks and a quick appearance from actress Catherine Keener, playing Phillips’ wife). Though Hanks presents a commanding presence onscreen, the other actors are a pleasure to watch as well, including first-timer Barkhad Abdi, who portrays the Somali pirate leader Abduwali Muse.

Despite the film’s realistic depictions of brutality of the merchant mariner’s perilous experience in 2009, Captain Phillips is not exactly historically accurate. Although his actions during the incident have been described as heroic, some crew members considered him reckless. According to these crew members, he originally ignored warnings of approaching Somali pirate boats and failed to keep his crew safe . Some even sued the Waterman Steamship Corporation and Maersk Line, the shipping companies who owned the ship, for nearly $50 million. They alleged “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety” by Phillips, who was hired by the companies. Luckily, Greengrass quickly justified this criticism with his own experience of carefully shaping Captain Phillips, explaining that it took months of research and interviews with the crew and military responders who were involved in the real hijacking. He reassured that “[he’s] 100% satisfied that the picture we present of these events in the film, including the role playing by Captain Phillips, is authentic.”

Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips, in a confrontation with the invasive Somali pirates during a pivotal scene in the movie

Regardless of these controversies, Captain Phillips as a film alone still stands triumphant, despite some faults in the prolonged action sequences. It not only epitomizes the ideal form of Hollywood action films, but also reignites the sensation of watching deeply emotive and cerebral thrillers. Unlike most action movies, Captain Phillips humanizes both the heroes and villains in the story. It may be hard to sympathize with every character, but after watching this film, I could see that it poses a lot of interesting questions about the reality of a largely overlooked issue and how it affects the core of our nation’s security.

Grade: B+

Recommended: Yes, preferably for fans of cerebral thrillers

Watch the trailer here: