‘Captain Phillips’ Review: Taut Suspense, Iffy Racial Politics, Unfussy Tom Hanks (Video)

Director Paul Greengrass’ portrayal here of a noble white officer suffering at the hands of insidious black pirates smacks of Rudyard Kipling

The best docu-dramas have a gift for taking a story we think we know and showing us the many layers that we don't. So while you may remember the news story from a few years ago, the one where Navy SEALs snipers took out three Somali pirates who were holding an American boat captain hostage, screenwriter Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “The Hunger Games”) and director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) put us right in the thick of the action in “Captain Phillips.”

DF-09062_rBased on Richard Phillips and Stephen Talty's memoir “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea,” this movie evokes the terror of Phillips’ captivity with the kind of immersive storytelling for which Greengrass has become known. But while the filmmakers capture their hero through both words and deeds, they fail to paint as vivid a portrait of their villains.

Also read: Tom Hanks Squares Off Against Somali Pirates in ‘Captain Phillips’ Trailer

The story in and of itself is a gripping one: In the spring of 2009, Phillips (played here with unfussy humanity by Tom Hanks) was shepherding the cargo ship Maersk Alabama around the horn of Africa when it was set upon by Somali pirates. The captain and his crew managed to elude the raiders on their first pass, but the following day, the marauders boarded the ship.

Unable to access the ship's cargo and fought to a standstill by the crew, the pirates instead took Phillips hostage, intending to transport him to Somalia to be ransomed by the insurance company. After several days in a lifeboat — an enclosed vessel, not like the ones you've seen in “Life of Pi” or Hitchcock's “Lifeboat” — Phillips was eventually rescued by the Navy.

Also read: 7 of Fall's Burning Box-Office Questions: Will Horror Rule Again? Can Tom Hanks Get His Groove Back?

It takes real skill to build genuine suspense when telling a story the ending of which everyone already knows, but Ray and Greengrass keep us on our toes, mainly by portraying the pirates as dangerous opponents, even when they're surrounded by aircraft carriers.

But while Phillips comes off as resourceful, brave and dedicated, his captors more often than not resemble zombies — Greengrass often shoots them in a way that makes their eyes invisible, rendering them soulless. The group's leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) gets in a few lines about how his people are victimized by larger nations (who have overfished the waters) and the local warlords (who pocket whatever fortunes these pirates manage to pilfer), but he mostly comes off as a mere monster, constantly chewing khat leaves and glowering.

Greengrass is obviously no colonist — his “Bloody Sunday” was an impassioned tale of Northern Ireland bearing the brunt of British violence — but his portrayal here of a noble white officer suffering at the hands of insidious black pirates smacks of Rudyard Kipling.

Also read: ‘Bourne’ Director Paul Greengrass Defends the Big Budget Tentpole Machine

Still, it's a fine showcase for Hanks, who captures the captain's quiet authority in calm seas, his fortitude under duress and his overwhelming shock when the ordeal ends. It's too bad his most extended bit of dialogue is a horribly written exchange with the missus (played by Catherine Keener in a terrible wig), in which they speak in the broadest terms about the world today and things sure are rough and all. His performance picks up substantially once he leaves the suburbs and assumes command of the bridge.

“Captain Phillips” will no doubt draw comparisons to “Zero Dark Thirty” for its ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling, but this is a case in which the writer and director are as interested in the human element as they are in the true events they're recounting. It's too bad that they couldn't have made their real-life bad guys as multi-dimensional as their hero.

For the record: A previous version of this story said Paul Greengrass directed “The Bourne Identity.”

  • Devin McMusters

    Yawn. How about another Toy Story, Tom?

  • Jim

    After several days in a lifeboat — an enclosed vessel, not like the ones you’ve seen in “Life of Pi” or Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” — Phillips was eventually rescued by the Navy.
    Don't forget “CastAway.”

  • AnaSedai .

    Sure, let's give the murdering, greedy pirates more humanity. Maybe they can dance a jig and sing “A Pirate's Life for Me” with Johnny Depp. Please. Does it ever occur to anyone that some people are just, well, bad? Oh, some may have motivations and explanations for why they do the bad things they do. Some might even be justified. But a lot of people just do bad things and aren't sorry about it. They're called sociopaths, and they're disturbingly common.
    These were a bunch of gun-toting thugs who set out to kidnap, and possibly murder, men who are just trying to do their jobs (and note that the Maersk Alabama was carrying cargo for relief aid *in Somalia* when they were attacked.) Paul Greengrass is a sympathetic filmmaker, as Bloody Sunday shows. However, his intelligence lies in his decisions regarding what does, and does not, deserve sympathy. A defenseless captain trading his life for the lives of his crew: deserving. A bunch of pirates whose only concern was how much money they could get for him: not.
    Call me judgmental. Call me shortsighted. But people are responsible for their actions. Whatever hardships these Somalians had suffered (and they undoubtedly suffered horribly), that did not give them the right to do what they did. They deserved what they got, and no more.

    • FactsSaveLives

      Desperate people will do desperate things. Looking at the desperate circumstances being faced by the Somali people is not the same as saying piracy is OK. In Somalia's case, it is the result of having basically no government. That should be a lesson to all in the US who are constantly arguing they don't want government.

  • Mike M.

    “It’s too bad that they couldn’t have made their real-life bad guys as multi-dimensional as their hero.”

    As a Sailor on the U.S. Navy ship that “played” the USS BAINBRIDGE for “Captain Phillips” and someone who has met and interacted with actual Somali pirates, I'll tell you one thing: They really don't get much more “multi-dimentional” than what you'll see in the movie.

    • Philippe Beauchamp

      thing is : in a movie you are restricted to a “time limit” / budget limit / etc. In order to deliver a realistic portrayal you'll have to tell the story from the very beginning (when the Somali pirates take the decision to hijack a boat) to the very end.. But take this in account : there's no very end nor very beginning to a thought. It grows over the time. You can't capture true human life in a single movie. You have to crop things a bit to it's accessible, true to life without being necessarily realistic (we know you don't get all the people's thought “in the moment” – but in a movie you have to condense, thus comes the aspect of storytelling. How will you get the truth to come out of a character so it seems as real as possible? Thus, some movies do try to achieve a true-to-life experience – but people complain because nothing is happening, it's slow, it's boring. Therefore that's why most movies are condensing the content of a character/story to display the truth in the most truthful plot possible.

  • Joseph

    Just what the world needs: more Extra Nauseating Super Shaky Cam™ from Paul Greencrap.

  • Marty Irons

    I've seen upclose the Lifeboat at the Navy Seal Museum. I've met and spoken to Captain Phillips here in Vermont. I've read the book. And a few nights ago I attended the VT premiere of the “Captain Phillips”. The real Richard Phillips introduced the movie and described it as a “good movie”. He was being modest. It's a great movie that transforms a two dimensional tale of pirates in the book to a riveting movie with three dimensional characters. Fast paced, interesting, exciting, and very close to the real events as described in Phillip's book. Don't be swayed by a critic's comparison of “Captain Phillips” to other movies. Rather, judge for yourself what you might do when faced with the same realities Richard Phillips faced. PS-Tom Hanks is at his best since playing Captain John Miller in “Saving Private Ryan”. If you are not sure, watch the scenes where he is brought aboard the USS Bainbridge after being rescued.

  • FactsSaveLives

    “The Truth About the Somali Pirates”

    “For years, a number of countries (especially the Japanese) have taken advantage of Somalia’s chaos to poach tuna by helicopter, while others have dumped their toxic waste along what is one of the world’s longest coastlines. As Ibrahim Addou, an American citizen and high-ranking minister in the new Somali transitional government said, these international practices, too, must end. The pirates are only a symptom of an increasingly desperate nation struggling to survive.”


  • Truth_Quest30

    I guess it sucks when the narrative of a true story doesn't fit your ideology, and Paul Greengrass is hardly a right of center filmmaker. If the pirates resembled zombies, an explicit film of the Rwandan genocide, when Hutus killed 500,000 to 1 million Tutsis in only 100 days, primarily with machetes, would look like a Zombie Apocalypse, and would probably make MSNBC commentators very upset.

  • Nick Nevada

    Hey,,, Hanks is the poster boy of hollywood liberals,,,, Expect more than a sideline theme of the poor pirates and what a bad life they have,,,, And of course if you're still with me on those two premises,,, can “Its really your fault” be far behind ?,,,,

  • Terry

    i just watched the movie and you captured my sentiments almost exactly. the Somalian characters were not humanized and were made to look like monsters. yes, this was aterrible occurrence but there are so many, like most situations, historical underlying elements (imperialism etc) that weren't even dealt with. i
    think when the Somalian captain/pirate spoke of ‘moving to New York ….. and
    buying a car'…was an indication of his despicable life style due to, at least
    in part, imperialism and how, if he had a choice (alternatives, if you will) he
    would have chosen a more “civilized” life style. he was just
    playing the cards he was dealt as we like to say in america. one more
    point, the somolian captain was obviously human and NOT a psycho because he
    could have shot the captain on numerous occasions and didn't. last point:
    i don't think he should have gotten 33 years…..he didn't kill anybody but
    yet we put young men of color in jail for 3 life sentences for being involved in
    any shape or form with crack cocaine. Good movie though….held my
    attention….which is rare these days.