Review: Captain Phillips

Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Catherine Keener
Released: October 24, 2013
Grade: A-

Captain Phillips
In April 2009, a small group of Somali pirates attacked a large cargo ship travelling from Oman to Kenya. Piracy was prevalent in the area at the time but this particular incident made headline news in the United States. Why? The Captain of the ship was Richard Phillips, an American citizen, who was kidnapped as part of the attack and held for ransom by the pirates.

Amongst the masses, director Paul Greengrass is more widely known for The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. They collectively pulled in more than $700 million at the international box-office and transformed Matt Damon into a believable action hero.

I’m a fan of Greengrass not so much for the Bourne movies (although they’re still very good) but rather, the way in which he can take a true story and turn into a captivating thriller. His movies never feel like a re-enactment. They feel more like an actual documentary thanks to credible dialogue and the use of hand-held cameras.

Bloody Sunday (2002) recounted the 1972 death of 13 protestors while marching against internment laws in Northern Ireland. United 93 (2006) provided a perspective on the hijacking of a United Airlines flight on 11 September 2001. Green Zone (2010) was based on an autobiographical novel and followed a U.S. Army soldier looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq following the war. They’re all great films. Do check them out if you haven’t already.

Captain Phillips can be added to that list and it’s another sharp, well-polished film from Paul Greengrass. There has been a little controversy surrounding the film with several crew members from the cargo ship claiming that it doesn’t provide a realistic depiction of events. They believe that Richard Phillips was a reckless Captain and they’re actually suing the cargo company for putting their lives in jeopardy.

Greengrass has responded by stating that this project was thoroughly researched. He spoke with 19 of the 20 crew members aboard the ship. He spoke with all of the U.S. military who played a key role in the rescue. He learned more about the pirates and their lives in Somali. While he acknowledges that not every single event can be covered in a two hour movie, he strongly believes what‘s included in the film is factually correct. I believe him.

The movie takes a little while to warm up as there are the obligatory scenes that provide some background information on Captain Phillips and the Somali pirates. An equal amount of time is spent following them both – this isn’t Phillips centric. The remainder of the film, from the start of the hijacking to its dramatic finale, is riveting. The tension keeps building and for those unfamiliar with the story (myself included), you’ll be burning with curiosity to see how it all unfolds.

Tom Hanks gives a worthy performance as Richard Phillips. He portrays the Captain as a smart guy who uses his extensive training to try to outsmart the pirates and give his crew the upper hand. He’s still human though and as the length of the hijacking drags out, you see the stress start to take its toll. Also picking up praise, deservedly so, is newcomer Barkhad Abdi – a Somali-American actor who plays the lead pirate.

We often joke about pirates (my birthday always falls on International Talk Like A Pirate Day) but Captain Phillips is not only a gripping thriller but also an eye-opener into piracy that still exists today. We understand the pirates’ motivation and learn about their tricky techniques. We also see what can be done by a ship’s crew to combat their attacks. I can’t see too many people being disappointed with the complete package that is Captain Phillips.