Captain Phillips (2013) – Movie Review

Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty  (book)
Actors: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
Runtime: 134 min
Rating: 14A

A biopic can be a notoriously hard sell. Many audiences attend films to escape the real world, as opposed to be reminded of it. Captain Phillips, however, is a true tale that is able to cause an audience to forget that they know the end of its story through its tense action and shockingly real acting performances. Here, a real-life pirate attack is related, as opposed to the fantasy versions audiences have become so accustomed to seeing in the theatre.

Director Paul Greengrass based his film on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, written by protagonist Richard Phillips himself as well as Stephan Talty. Both book and film relate the story of the 2009 hijacking of a United States container ship traveling near the Somali coast. The ship’s leader, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), attempts to negotiate with the young pirate captain, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), and the film follows Phillips both on the large ship as he attempts to protect his crew and onto a cramped lifeboat as he is taken hostage and held for ransom. As always, details from the true story have been omitted in the interest of cinema, but actor Hanks claims that all of the events that the film does depict are true and that the main themes from the book have been retained.

Captain Phillips

Although the film offers many thrills, it also takes time to set up its action, showing the reluctance and despair of the Somalis prior to embarking on their hijacking mission. Both sides of this story are shown to an audience who may expect a clear-cut villain and be surprised to realize that none exists; the Somalis are depicted as young, desperate, and afraid, as opposed to demonized. As their leader Muse, Barkhad Abdi does not fail to impress, and one cannot help but marvel at the nuances shown by this skilled first-time actor who is able to elicit both terror and pity simultaneously; the question of whether or not Muse would be a criminal if circumstances were different cannot help but be asked.

As expected, veteran actor Tom Hanks also shines in the film’s title role. Phillips is a serious, family-oriented everyman, in true Hanks style. Instead of portraying him as a hero, Hanks creates a Phillips who simply aims to keep himself and his crew alive, and is able to find just the right things to say to Muse in order to do so. Two scenes stood out in their display of Hanks’ power as an actor: in one, Hanks must act like a man attempting, and failing, to act, in order to deceive the pirates as to the hiding place of his crew. These multiple layers are complicated and brilliantly executed. The second standout occurs in the final five minutes, and suffice it to say that this scene serves as a doubtless reminder as to why Hanks has earned his extraordinary reputation as a powerhouse actor.

Captain Phillips

Director Greengrass uses a jerky, handheld camera style to add authenticity to his biopic, and although an audience is drawn into the story, they never truly forget that they are watching a version of real-life events. This technique is important, as the story holds much more power as truth than it would as fabrication. The action in this film feels authentic, and is able to grab onto the attention of a viewer and lock it in. After its thrilling beginning on the cargo ship, the film’s middle set in the lifeboat may seem a bit stagnant. However, one must remember that the real-life Phillips spent almost five days as a hostage in this chaotic and claustrophobic space. If these scenes feel long to a spectator, then they work to accurately portray the agony of these events for Phillips and for the pirates who hold him.

Like the film Argo, which was also based on true events, Captain Phillips manages to cause a viewer to forget that they know the outcome and leaves them gripping their seat regardless of prior knowledge. The film may not be pleasant, but it cannot help but fascinate as it depicts two sides of a story that may initially appear to have a clear-cut morality but is revealed to be more complicated than assumed. Nail-biting action and real, raw performances from both a seasoned veteran, who reminds us of his power, and a fresh newcomer, who confidently holds his own, combine to create a tense and entertaining film going experience.