- 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 Sea – Captain 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:
- Best Adapted Screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards.
- Best Film Editing from the San Diego Film Critics Society.
Among Captain Phillips’ award nominations:
- Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi) at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
- Best Director at the Directors Guild of America Awards.
- Best Motion Picture – Drama, Director, and Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi) at the Golden Globes.
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.