Captain Phillips

Oct 10, 2013

Greengrass has a gift for depicting action.

Captain Phillips

Grade: A-

Director: Paul Greengrass (United 93, Bourne Identity)

Screenplay: Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), Richard Phillips (from A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea)

Cast: Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Barkhad Abdi

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 134 min.

by John DeSando

“Everything is going to be okay,” Muse (Barkhad Abi)

Yes, for Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), everything did turn out “okay” as Muse, the captain of four pirate Somalis, kept assuring him. Not so for the pirates. 

In the docudrama Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass has once again used his expertise with the hand-held camera and an uncanny sense of tense drama to take, as he did in United 93, an historical drama and make it painfully real. When the pirates take over the Maersk Alabama cargo ship off the coast of Somalia in 2009, the captain ends up in a motorized life-boat with the pirates to experience claustrophobia in the Das Boot tradition and a keen awareness of danger, although we know that at least he will survive.

The genius of American action films, especially real-life adventures involving crack American units like the Navy SEALS, as in Zero Dark Thirty, is to keep our attention wedded to action whose results we already know. The tension aboard the unarmed ship (those defending hoses are weak) is vivid while the pirates search for the hidden crew.  Yet the drama aboard the little life-craft trumps all else while the pirates argue among themselves and Phillips does a heroic turn of applying psychological warfare.

Hanks has cornered the film market on decent, common men in uncommon, demanding circumstances.  His scene on the rescue ship is an effective depiction of a man suffering more from concern about his family than the physical pain the pirates inflict. Hanks’ ability to project a love of humanity, even these pirates, is unparalleled. Look for his nomination at Oscar time.

Although we have seen this type of action before, notably in the excellent Danish docudrama The High Jacking last year, Captain Phillips takes it up close and personal. You can almost say you were there.

“I know how to handle Americans,” Muse says. That’s a hollow boast because even most of us (Congress included) aren’t good at handling our fellow Americans.  Except for Tom Hanks, of course.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at