A film review by Craig J. Koban October 17, 2013 

RANK: #13


2013, R, 134 mins.


Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips  /  Catherine Keener as Andrea Phillips  /  Max Martini as SEAL Commander  /  Chris Mulkey as John Cronan  /  Yul Vazquez as Frank Castellano  /  Corey Johnson as Ken Quinn  /  David Warshofsky as Mike Perry  /  John Magaro as Dan Phillips  /  Michael Chernus as Shane Murphy  /  Angus MacInnes as John A White

Directed by Paul Greengrass  /  Written by Billy Ray

Paul Greengrass’ CAPTAIN PHILLIPS tells the fact-based account of the Massachusetts-born U.S. Merchant Marine Richard Phillips, whom in 2009 was the commander of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama when it was taken over by Somali piratesThe ship itself - with its 20-man unarmed crew - was trekking across some very dangerous waters – much to Phillips' and the crew’s knowledge – as the area in question was a notorious haven for Somali pirates and looters, which made Phillips’ seemingly routine mission across the Indian Ocean anything but routine.  

All of this is breathlessly and masterfully recreated by Greengrass, the British documentary-trained filmmaker that's no stranger whatsoever to infusing his films with a stark and immediate sense of gut-churning veracity. He made, for my money, the very finest film of the last decade in 2006’s UNITED 93 (which thanklessly recreated the terrible events on-board a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania during 9/11) and 2002’s BLOODY SUNDAY (which dealt with the 1972 shooting unarmed of demonstrators in Northern Ireland).  Greengrass has also made populist fare, like THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and ULTIMATUM (still the best in the series) as well as the terribly underrated Middle Eastern themed action thriller GREEN ZONE.  Regardless of whether or not the subject matter is reality or fiction based, Greengrass has a supreme knack for conjuring a sense of incredible and harrowing authenticity in his films.  You often feel emotionally drained when leaving a Greengrass film, which is a high compliment: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is no exception, as it grabs you and never lets go until the final credits. 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS begins with a sense of calm, everyday normalcy before it dives headfirst into the hellish ordeal of the Alabama’s hijacking.  The screenplay (based on Phillips’ own 2010 memoir, adapted by Billy Ray, the wonderful writer of SHATTERED GLASS and BREACH) initially shows Phillips (Tom Hanks) with his wife (Catherine Keener) as they prepare for their respective days, but it does not waste too much time in dwelling on them.  Once he boards his freighter ship, the Captain – and the film itself – becomes all business.  Shortly after departing, Phillips gets emailed warnings of the prospective threat of Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, which he does heed.  He preps his unionized crew for a series of security drills…just in case.  However, one drill soon becomes the real deal when Somali boats with armed men are spotted miles away from the freighter. 



Amazingly, the Alabama does not contain any defensive weapons at all, which requires Phillips and company to think quickly on their feat to thwart off a possible boarding by the pirates.  Unfortunately, four of them – heavily armed with machine guns – do manage to get on the freighter and very quickly hold Phillips and his crew hostage.  Phillips does manage to secure and hide most of the crew before being boarded.  This inevitably leads to a series of cat and mouse games between everyone on board, which becomes increasingly tense seeing as the Somalis all have itchy trigger fingers and a zealot-like thirst for a handsome payoff.  Eventually, Phillips is tricked and coerced against his will to be taken soul captive aboard the freighter’s metal life raft, and as the pirates sail off with him from the Alabama, the U.S. government and Navy come in to ensure that Phillips never makes his way to Somalia. 

Ray’s scripting and Greengrass’ direction are lean, economical, and swiftly efficient.  Interestingly, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS does not seem to go out of its way (as many critics of the film’s historical accuracy have complained to the contrary) to frame its title character as a simplistic movie hero.  If anything, the captain is initially shown as a man with a steely-eyed temperament and unwavering tenacity.  Early scenes show him dealing with his multiple union-controlled crew, most of which have no desire to continue to sail pirate infested waters.  Yet, Phillips here is portrayed as a figure with a cold and detached professionalism that gave his crewmembers a choice: serve or leave the vessel on the next stop.  Many members of the actual crew have denounced the real Phillips as a demanding and hard-to-work-with authority figure.  Yet, I pose this: What person overseeing such a vessel and responsibilities wouldn’t be? 

Greengrass’ overall aesthetic technique may seem overpowering for most viewers.  He relies on a frantically moving camera, ample zip pans, and other editorial flourishes.  Usually – and under less auspicious hands – this would seem to be used to artificially drum up manufactured pathos, but Greengrass is a much finer and nuanced screen tactician than most.  Much like he did with the bravura UNITED 93, Greengrass takes a true story where the outcome is predetermined and known and still manages to give it a sense of nail-biting intrigue and never-ending suspense.  His stylistically trappings here compliment and emphasize the chaos that transpires on screen, not to mention that it also grounds viewers within the events to the point where we feel like uneasy fly-on-the-wall spectators.  The cinematographer here, Barry Ackroyd (THE HURT LOCKER), also knows how to frame the film for maximum verisimilitude; there’s rarely a moment in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS that seems like the product of greenscreen or CGI work.  You feel like you’re on the high seas at every waking moment of this film. 

The performances in the film greatly compliment Greengrass’ unparalleled visual proficiency.  This just might be one of Hanks’ craftier and most quietly exhilarating performances, as he has to project a man that miraculously manages to keep his cool and wits about him when placed in a pressure cooker of a situation.  Hanks downplays any attempt to make Phillips a one-man/one-note action movie hero; his Phillips is just an ordinary man placed in a deadly and hazardous situation that would test the mental faculties of any strong person.  There’s a climatic scene in the film where Phillips succumbs to post-traumatic stress, and it just might be one of the most heart-rending and devastatingly effective scenes that Hanks has ever acted in.  During it, any notions that CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is trying to be a hero-worshipping vanity piece are thrown away; we see a man injured, in shock, and emotionally shattered and teetering towards breakdown. 

Also eerily strong is Barkhad Adbi, who plays Muse, the leader of the pirates; despite never having acted in a film before, he still manages to hold his own against a heavyweight screen titan like Hanks.  Adbi creates a wonderfully nuanced and multi-dimensional screen baddie: Muse is tough, street wise, and is prone to ruthless viciousness, but he’s almost blindly naïve when it comes to an exit strategy from his hijacking plans, not to mention that he also shows an atypical respect for Phillips as a captain in the process.  He wants millions from the ship, even when it appears that there is only $30,000 on-board in a safe, and you can sense Muse’s growing disillusionment – along with a resolve to carry on – as his own situation grows direr.  Adbi and Hanks are one of the more dynamic and effective on-screen pairings that I’ve seen lately. 

Obligatory criticisms of historical accuracy have dogged the film just days after its release.  Some claim that facts have been carefully included and discarded, whereas others have, again, taken exception with the film’s painting of Phillips as a brave champion against tremendous odds.  I will leave you with this: Greengrass’ film is not attempting to be ostensibly a work of fact.  This is a dramatic recreation of history where liberties, no doubt, were taken for the purposes of crafting a viscerally exciting and harrowingly immersive filmgoing experience.  On those levels, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is as stellar as anything that Greengrass has done previously.  The film’s final 30-40 minutes are among the most gripping and feverously intense that I’ve experienced in a cinema in a long while.  And the fact that we know the outcome of this story…well…that makes Greengrass’ achievement here all the more astounding. 

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