Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

The only thing I’d change about Captain Phillips, the terrific new film from shaky-cam maestro Paul Greengrass, is the name. Although the film certainly centres around Rich Phillips, the American commercial shipping captain taken hostage by armed Somali pirates back in 2009, the focus is divided between Phillips and his Somali counterpart, the pirate leader Muse. It’s a film about two captains and their crews — not just the white American one.

But this is my only complaint about the film. Like he did with United 93, Greengrass has made a docudrama that tells its true story in the most grippingly way imaginable. You will feel there, in the midst of the events, which is a very uncomfortable, but remarkably effective, feeling to have. In this case the events are the boarding of the Maersk Alabama, an American freighter, by armed Somali pirates in early 2009. Four men armed with AK-47s attempted to take the ship hostage and steer it back to Somalia, where they could hold it for ransom. Things didn’t go as planned, the crew outsmarted the pirates, and the pirates escaped on a lifeboat with the captain, Rich Phillips, in tow. This hostage situation exploded into an international crisis and news phenomenon, and Navy SEALS were called in to deal with the pirates.

All of this fits right within Paul Greengrass’s wheelhouse. The director best known for the first three Bourne films (you know, the ones actually featuring Jason Bourne) is a master of hard-hitting action. Although I’m critical of shaky-cam’s use in many modern action films as a cheap way to achieve realism and intensity — look no further than the sloppy action scenes of last year’s behemoth The Hunger Games for proof of shaky-cam used poorly — Greengrass actually uses it well. It comes from his ability to geographically orient the action despite the fast cuts and moves, and the way he seems totally assured in how the action unfolds. But if Captain Phillips were just well shot and tense, it’d be nothing more than an exciting docudrama. Luckily, that’s not the case.

The other day I read first mate Shane Murphy’s reaction to the film in an interview with Vulture. He applauded the film, unlike many of his fellow crewmembers, but he thought that it should have provided some coverage of the families of the crewmembers back home. He claims that the reactions of the family members, and the actions of his father, an anti-piracy lecturer at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, were necessary to get the government into action. It would have lent the film some needed perspective and given the through-line as to how the hostage event turned into an international crisis.

I disagree with Murphy, but I actually think his comments highlight what works so well about the film. The fact that Captain Phillips never contextualizes or comments upon itself or breaks loose of the immediate situation is why it works so well. It also makes the commentary on why the hostage situation happened not easy to dismiss. In a conversation with Phillips after he’s taken hostage on the lifeboat, Muse explains that he used to be a fisherman, but that international powers came and used up all the fish. Piracy was the only way left to make any money. And for Muse, it’s all about money. No terrorism or political motivations. Just money.

The fact that Captain Phillips actually gets at the heart of why the events it portrays happened without characters theorizing about it from a distance is remarkable. It also makes the four Somali pirates into sympathetic human villains, although villains nonetheless — Barkhad Abdi gives as compelling a performance as Muse as Tom Hanks gives as Phillips. They’re humanity is never doubted, and their motivations are scarily similar to the crewmembers they terrorize.

The complexity of the villains and the American government’s culpability in the creation of situations like this one made me feel similar to how I did after watching Zero Dark Thirty. At the end, when the SEALS finally deal with the pirates and the good guys apparently win, I felt empty. I couldn’t applaud because it’d be like applauding a person for saving someone from a fire in a building they firebombed. Rich Phillips may have gotten out of hell. But Somali is still stuck in it.

Captain Phillips is exciting and well acted and troubling. A remarkable feat for a film “Based on a true story.”

9 out of 10

Captain Phillips (2013, USA)

Directed by Paul Greengrass; written by Billy Ray based off A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea by Rich Phillips; starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed,  Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, and Catherine Keener.