Classic Movie Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

Posted: October 18, 2013 in Drama


Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is the captain of the cargo ship the Maersk Alabama.  In early 2009, the Maersk Alabama is scheduled to sail around the cape of Africa.  Phillips is well-aware of the threat of kidnapping by pirates.  He is made more aware of this threat when he gets an e-mail saying that the Maersk Alabama is headed toward a highly dangerous kidnapping area.  Before the Maersk Alabama ever sets sail, Somaili pirates Muse (Barkhad Abdi) Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) Najee (Faisal Ahmad)  and Elmi (Mahat Ali) are planning the kidnapping with the aid of Somali warlord. Hufan (Issak Farah Samatar)

The Somalis try to board the Maersk Alabama once, and are repelled by Phillips and the crew, but on the second attempt, they are successful and board the ship. Muse emerges as the leader of the pirates, and quickly he finds Captain Phillips and begins to search for the rest of the crew of 20.  The crew for their part, does everything it can to sabotage the pirates’ efforts.  They turn off the power on the ship, they break glass on the floor of the ship so that one of the barefooted pirates cuts his foot, and two or three of the Maersk crew even capture Muse, and they work out a trade for Captain Phillips for Muse, but the trade goes wrong, and the pirates escape with Captain Phillips, on-board a lifeboat.  Now, it’s up to the Navy and a Navy Seal Team to rescue Phillips.  Do they do it?

One of the reasons I like this movie is because it is an intelligent story and not just a shoot-em-up action movie.  The captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama do not have guns , or weapons of any kind so they have to use their wits and stall until the Navy sends a ship to pressure the pirates.  This is an intelligent script, because it makes the Captain sympathetic, even when he is under extreme pressure of injury or death, Captain Phillips actually tends to the injuries of the pirates that are trying to injure him.  The film points out that the Alabama is delivering food and supplies to Africans. Phillips even gives the pirates a way out of the crisis.  This is an intelligent movie because it makes the pirates sympathetic.  Kidnapping should never be condoned, but one can realize that abject poverty can lead to irrational behavior.  These pirates have nothing to lose, and so they are willing to lose everything.  Phillips and Muse gain a grudging respect for each other, because even while they are working at cross-purposes, they both realize that no one can get hurt or they both lose.

The direction also helps this movie set a tone.  The atmosphere in this movie can only be called claustrophobic, you can feel the the closeness in the ship, the tightness of space, the overall cramped feeling.  This is achieved by filming on an actual ship and not a soundstage.  Director Paul Greenngrass is to be applauded for deciding to film this on a ship, this adds to the suspense.  Greengrass knows his way around an intelligent action movie, he’s directed both the Bourne Supremacy and the Bourne Ultimatum.

The acting is superb as well, many watching this film will say that this is a pedestrian effort by Tom Hanks, but those who say that miss one of the strengths of Hanks’ career, making the common man do extraordinary things.  In movies like Catch Me If You Can, The Green Mile, Larry Crowne, even Toy Story, he plays seemingly ordinary men who bring people together with his leadership.  And in the last 10 minutes of Captain Phillips he gives such a virtuoso performance, so emotionally powerful that it is spellbinding.   He does try to affect a New England accent in this movie, it’s not very good, but that’s a minor glitch in a great performance.  Another standout performance was given by Barkhad Abdi, who played Muse, he was menacing, he had to be, and he conveyed that very well.  He also played the role with, charm, guile, humor and intelligence.  He humanized a reprehensible character, Muse wasn’t taken in by most of what Phillips told him, and that made the movie even more interesting to watch.

This movie has everything, a great story, supplemented by superb acting and excellent directing; all make for a taught thriller that is a must-see.

Captain Phillips:  A Commanding performance by Hanks.


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