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Captain Phillips (2013) Movie Review: Tom Hanks’ Seaman Gets Misplaced Focus

Captain Phillips movie Tom HanksCaptain Phillips movie with Tom Hanks.
  • Captain Phillips (2013) movie review: Starring Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass’ less-than-satisfying political thriller places its focus on the wrong seaman.
  • Captain Phillips was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing (Christopher Rouse), Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.

Captain Phillips movie review: Starring Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass’ real-life-based thriller feels both dramatically and historically incomplete

Played by Tom Hanks, the titular captain in Paul Greengrass’ thriller Captain Phillips is an American merchant mariner whose cargo vessel, the MV Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by a handful of Somali pirates in March 2009.

The event became worldwide news in nearly real time once the pirates took Captain Richard Phillips hostage as they fled the merchant vessel in one of its lifeboats. In short order, they found themselves pursued and surrounded by several American naval war vessels intent on preventing the captain from being taken to Somalia – the inference being quite clear to all.

Mostly adapted from the captain’s book of memoirs – which has the unwieldy title A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at SeaCaptain Phillips is dramatically taut and slack, culturally savvy and naive, politically astute and manipulative, and emotionally sincere while being embarrassingly overwrought.

Given the source material, Captain Phillips is skewed towards the captain’s recollections. Fair enough: To the victor go the spoils; the captain survived the harrowing events, so he is the one who gets to tell the story.

However, this approach does not necessarily make for the best storytelling, and it certainly does not make for a complete story – even if true. Harrowing as it is, Captain Phillips mostly feels incomplete and thus less than completely satisfying.

The two captains

Notwithstanding its title, Captain Phillips begins with two captains preparing for work on different sides of the planet.

Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener, in a thankless role) chat about ordinary things as they make their commute: The weather, the kids, the future.

Meanwhile, in a Somali village near the shore, a former fisherman named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) picks a crew for his excursion into the same waters. There is no talk of the weather or children or the future. These things do not matter in Somalia.

We know the two men will meet, we know what will happen, we even know who will survive. Yet none of this knowledge directly undermines the film’s events.

Sense of urgency

Paul Greengrass is known (and was perhaps hired) for his ability to tell stories about historical events and imbue them with a sense of urgency.

In fact, Captain Phillips bears the definite look and feel of a Paul Greengrass movie. Its cinéma vérité style had previously informed the director’s work as a documentarian, his early TV dramas, and most notably his 2002 political drama Bloody Sunday, an account of the 1972 British massacre of Northern Irish activists. Shot in documentary style, Bloody Sunday has a sense of immediacy that is appropriately disturbing.

Similar techniques are seen in Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, and even in The Green Zone, which is set in the early days of the second Iraq War. But most conspicuously, they can be found in his depiction of some of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in United 93.

It’s the filmmaker’s effective stylistic stamp – even as it becomes ever more familiar and as a result increasingly less interesting.

Missing the forest for the trees

Now, style is not Captain Phillips’ central problem; the main issue is that the movie misses the forest for the trees.

Captain Phillips is about the fate of the titular character. Again, that’s a reasonable subject; even so, his story is the one question mark we already know the answer to. As previously noted, this was a worldwide news event covered in nearly real time; besides, the captain himself wrote a book of memoirs.

In other words, the filmmakers chose the least interesting angle to explore the issues surrounding the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama. After all, a far more interesting question would have been: Why are these fishermen now pirates when for decades they were content to be fishermen?

In fact, this very question is raised – and dismissed – by Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (Breach, The Hunger Games) in a matter of four or five lines. And that’s it. So instead, in Captain Phillips we get United 93 on a container vessel with a slightly better outcome. Fair enough.

Captain Phillips (2013) cast & crew

Director: Paul Greengrass.

Screenplay: Billy Ray.
Based on Richard Phillips & Stephan Talty’s book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini.

Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd.

Film Editing: Christopher Rouse.

Music: Henry Jackman.

Production Design: Paul Kirby.

Producers: Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, and Michael De Luca.

Production Companies: Michael De Luca Productions | Trigger Street Productions | Scott Rudin Productions.

Distributor: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Releasing.

Running Time: 134 min.

Country: United States.


Captain Phillips (2013) Movie Review” endnotes

Award wins & nominations

Among Captain Phillips’ award wins:

Among Captain Phillips’ award nominations:


Captain Phillips movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) website.

Tom Hanks Captain Phillips movie image: Sony Pictures.

Captain Phillips (2013) Movie Review: Tom Hanks’ Seaman Gets Misplaced Focus” last updated in September 2022.

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2 comments

Dan O. -

Personally, this movie worked in ways that I didn’t expect. Mainly, I was just happy that it made me feel tense and on-edge almost every second, even if I already knew the outcome prior to seeing it. Good review Tim.

Reply
kkurman -

that’s it? it “feels incomplete and thus less than completely satisfying.” and yet, from reading this the only complaint is that there wasn’t enough, needless, explanation of the obvious. really? yes, thankfully there were only about five lines of dialogue spelling out what led the pirates to pirating, but there were countless other clues, radar images of crowed shipping lanes, conversations with Muse in the lifeboat about being “not just a fisherman” which went to his ‘character’ and seemed a little heavy handed to me at the time but were obviously missed. We’ve been subjected to a rash of feeble movies this year and you must admit, this was not one of them. I found the storytelling tight and well paced. ok, it may not have beaten every bush of reality, but its a movie and a good one at that. And it was beautiful, you forgot to mention that, beautifully shot and edited. Perhaps you might have mentioned that there was no reference to the fact that the Commander in Chief at the time was Barack Obama. This was a choice on the part of the filmmaker, for a reason probably. Were you at all disturbed by the audience cheering when four people were shot dead? Or how about something about Tom Hank’s performance? I’m not a fan but wow, he tagged that guy and, despite the affectation of the accent, showed some very palpable FEAR! All in all it was a good movie, it was good entertainment and, if we were paying attention, we learned a little about something that before we didn’t fully understand. That to me is as much as we can expect, and it gave it.

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