Film review: Tom Hanks anchors the tension in the riveting Captain Phillips

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Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks, is a heart-stopping, high seas thriller directed by the Bourne franchise’s Peter Greenrass. Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks, is a heart-stopping, high seas thriller directed by the Bourne franchise’s Peter Greenrass.

Sometimes when watching a movie that’s emotionally distressing, one has to ask, “Just how much pain can we watch these characters endure? What’s the endgame here?”

Director Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is one of those movies. It stars Tom Hanks as the titular captain of the container ship Maersk Alabama that was laid siege by Somali pirates in 2009.

Greengrass is on familiar ground. He specializes in harrowing action pictures. In addition to directing the stark and brutal sequels to The Bourne IdentityThe Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum—this is the guy who wrote and directed United 93, a fictionalized account of United Airlines 93, the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania after it was hijacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.

In other words, Greengrass is no stranger to extreme drama, violence, and human suffering. Audiences expecting a rollicking adventure on the high seas should look elsewhere. Captain Phillips is simple, deliberately paced, and, at times, relentlessly intense. The fact that it’s PG-13 refers to the amount of blood on screen, not to the degree of trauma its main character and several secondary characters face.

Hanks is Richard Phillips, a Vermont-based captain of a container ship. He’s in charge, and even before the voyage, in a brief scene with his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), it’s clear Phillips is at the end of his rope. But life is life, and there are kids to get through school and bills, and Andrea drops Phillips off at the airport so he can meet his ship.

That’s where the domestic bliss—if it’s indeed bliss—ends and the terror begins. In distant Somalia, we see pirates gathering on the shores to head into international waters to storm ships, take their cargo, and, if need be, do away with the passengers.

It’s here that Captain Phillips falters a little. Character development is not its long suit. Sure, the Somali pirates have bosses who threaten to kill them and their families, but is that going to make us sympathize with them?

Nah, we’re with Phillips and his crew, even the guys who gripe that their union contracts don’t include hijacking pay. Not that they have long to gripe, because two pirate ships are off in the distance and closing.

The first pirate attack is thwarted when the pirate ships are too slow. But one of the pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), has an idea: Put the other boat’s outboard motor on his boat and double the speed. It works, and the next day the pirates are on the Maersk Alabama.

If you recall the story from the news, you know what happens next. Greengrass, aided by performances from Hanks and Abdi, does well keeping the drama going, even when Phillips is captured and much of the remaining running time takes place in a lifeboat with periodic diversions to Navy destroyers.

It’s on the lifeboat that the film’s energy flags, even during what is supposed to be intense drama. The pirates are woefully one-dimensional and mostly just shout at each other. Of course, this movie isn’t about them. It’s about Phillips and his struggle to survive. Hanks’ final scene, when it’s all over, is truly heartbreaking.

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  • Bill

    One funny detail not often mentioned is that Captain Phillips disobeyed orders to stay at least 600 miles from the Somali coast and it was his fault that the ship was attacked because he was 200 miles from the coast. Someone I know well works for Maersk.

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