Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Container Ship

As I left my screening of the new Paul Greengrass (Bourne Ultimatum, The Green Zone) film, Captain Phillips starring the ever-likable Tom Hanks, I didn’t really know what to make of it. Phillips is a dramatization of the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009. It focuses on the titled character’s capture by Somali pirates and eventual rescue by the U.S. Navy. But as the film cut to black and the credits began to roll, I was left more cold than relieved by its ending. There is no doubt in my mind that I saw a well-crafted thriller; and yet I felt emotionally detached throughout the majority of the film, partly because Phillips relies too much on Hank’s star-power to fill in for any character development for Captain Rich Phillips.

Being a film “based on true events,” Captain Phillips hopes that its’ audiences will be engaged enough by the fact that this is something that actually happened to someone, in this case Tom Hanks of all people. Of course, there’s always a question of how much is exaggerated for the sake of drama. It’s true that Hanks makes the most of what he’s given, portraying a character who proves to be a man of action. I imagine that’s a trait that will draw many to this film and garner an Oscar nomination (and possibly a win) in the process for Hanks. But thematically, I thought the character came up short and I couldn’t feel much in the way of emotional resonance for him.

It’s the Somali pirates, most notably Barkhad Abdi who plays pirate leader Muse, that have more to do. Early in the film, we’re introduced to Muse and his crew in their village: people scrambling for a chance to make some money by taking on the job of boarding and stealing from neighboring ships. It’s a dangerous job, a theme that Phillips attempts to connect with the risk he and his crew are taking by sailing on the Maersk Alabama. Abdi, in his first starring role, is fantastic.  His skinny frame and longish face prove to be an asset, masking his shrewd and dynamic personality. He wants to prove himself to his people, and that shows itself in his entire performance, giving a shred of humanity to an otherwise unsympathetic role. However, the film never really does much to rid one of the feeling that Phillips is essentially a film about the white man vs. the dark savages. Muse helps even things out a bit. I can’t say the same for his compatriots, who spend a majority of the film screaming incoherently, their eyes bugging out of their skulls. The script tries to incorporate a tragic back story to make the pirates’ fates seem inevitable, but it feels a bit half-hearted.

Even with these complaints, Greengrass’ camerawork shines through, creating a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere throughout. Adopting a Cinéma vérité style, Phillips at times feels like an actual documentary; though, surely to the detriment of some viewers. The shakey-cam from Greengrass’ popular “Bourne” series returns in full-force with the camera constantly jerking around as the action unfolds onscreen. At times it is a bit much, but unlike its use in other, less effective Hollywood films, it heightens the events that occur to an unsettling degree. Watching several stand-offs that occur in the film, it’s hard not to feel as if things could go very wrong for Captain Phillips and his crew.

Captain Phillips ends on what is sure to become the film’s most noteworthy scene. Instead of going for the easier, reassuring route, the film’s concludes without that sense of victory one might feel even knowing how everything ends. The ending was the one time I felt connected to Phillips as a character. It’s just a shame I couldn’t say the same for the rest of the movie.


Christopher Exantus is a young, dashing 23 year-old with hopes of making it big–or just enough to make some cash. Realizing that working at a dead-end job would be career suicide, Chris mercilessly banged his head upon his laptop computer and regularly pumps out personal reviews on film, pop-culture, and whatever else happens to catch his attention at the moment. Currently, his life goal is to become a fancy hipster living in a big, stupid hipsterish apartment in the city–and it will be awesome. He has a blog about film, and you can follow him on Twitter at @ceexantus.

Photo by Rennett Stowe, via Flickr.

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