Captain Phillips: Review


“Captain Phillips” movie poster

The 2009 Maersk Alabama crisis comes to life in a superbly cast and mechanically sound docudrama that is sure to both thrill and leave you thinking. Under the watchful eye of director Paul Greengrass (United 93, Bourne Ultimatum), Captain Phillips is (and you can quote me on this) one of this year’s best films.

Tom Hanks, America’s favorite everyman, stars as Richard Phillips, the captain of a container ship which, in rounding the Horn of Africa, is boarded by a group of Somali pirates. The bearded skipper is taken hostage by the Somalis in the ship’s lifeboat as a trading chip—the pirates hope to wager Phillips for a hefty insurance payment. Cue the arrival of the U.S. military, and the square-off begins.

Captain Phillips has all the makings of a solid action flick, bursting with big guns, macho men and American heroics. What the movie offers in addition to this testosterone-filled foundation, however, is a story of microscopic and macroscopic complexity. At the center of it all is the dynamic relationship between Captain Phillips and the Somali pirate leader, Muse, played by Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, respectively. Both men give performances to die for. Abdi is both grippingly villainous and beautifully sympathetic in his role as a young fisherman who has for various reasons (mostly) beyond his control, assumed the life of a cold criminal. The character of Muse is multi-faceted in the best way—some “dynamic villains” are hopelessly artificial, as if the writers and directors created an evil villain and then surgically inserted sympathetic lines to give the impression of an antihero. Abdi’s Somali pirate is no such Frankenstein—he’s the real thing. Look for the first-time actor to make some noise in various awards races.

Captain Phillips signals a renaissance of sorts for Tom Hanks (another promising Hanks film, Saving Mr. Banks launches this winter). The Forrest Gump actor ruled the 1990s in terms of dramatic, Academy-appealing character roles but his last Academy nomination was Cast Away in 2000. “Captain Phillips” is a stunning return to top form. No one knows what Richard Phillips was feeling in those tumultuous hours of danger and uncertainty, but Hanks manages to create a character that is both believable and worth believing in. The last ten minutes of the film is particularly agonizing, and in a good way.

Take a step back from the individual performances and you’ll see the picture that Captain Phillips successfully paints. And no, it’s not your run-of-the-mill “effects of globalization”. Captain Phillips is too sophisticated to rely on such perfunctory social criticism. Instead, the film emphasizes something far more fundamental and close to home—humanity.