Movie Review: Captain Phillips (2013)



by Alan F. Zundel

For a while I avoided watching “Captain Phillips.” I knew that it was a well-made movie, as anything starring Tom Hanks has to have something going for it, but in the trailer preview I felt something was missing.

I finally gave in and rented a copy of the DVD. And yeah, something was missing.

“Captain Phillips” is a movie about the real life incident of a Somali pirate attack on a merchant vessel and the abduction and rescue of the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips. You may remember the story from the news reports in 2009. I did remember some of the story, so I knew how it ended, which took away a little of the suspense.

But not too much. That’s not what was missing.

Director Paul Greengrass, who also directed two of the Jason Bourne films, keeps the pace up. By shooting much of the film on an actual cargo ship he achieves a great deal of realism, rendering a “you are there” feeling. Very early on we are given hints of what is coming, and the tension ratchets up scene by scene all the way to an exciting climax.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Christopher Rouse are in perfect synch with the direction, capturing the action with clarity and authenticity rather than distracting the audience’s attention with technique.

Nor is there anything wanting in the performances.

Tom Hanks as is excellent throughout, but most especially at the end of the movie after Captain Phillips has been rescued but is still in shock. When he does release his pent up emotion it cues the audience to release as well and the scene is moving and effective.

Barkhad Abdi, a non-professional actor who plays Abduwali Muse, the leader of the rag-tag group of pirates who board the ship, compels your attention in every scene he appears in. His quiet, watchful eyes reveal layers of personality that are not always obvious from his actions.

The supporting players are all fine as well.

“Captain Phillips” does succeed in being a suspenseful movie.

What was the problem, then? The screenplay. What was missing was a deeper dimension to the story that would give it greater meaning to the audience.

(I hasten to add that I have not read the screenplay, so that deeper dimension may very well have been in it but cut out of the final version of the film for some reason.)

Writer Billy Ray received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay, and it is a professional piece of work. As I said, it is a suspenseful movie. He both does justice to the realism of the story and hits every mark of traditional three-act Hollywood story-telling. By that I mean that the screenplay follows a pattern which has proven to satisfy audiences.

The first act sketches out the lives of the principal characters in their ordinary environments: Captain Philips’ family life, his arrival at work, his taking command of a new shipping assignment; Abduwali Muse’s desperate life in Somali, his relations with his tribal leader and the men he commands, his job as a pirate.

The second act propels the protagonist—Captain Phillips—into an unusual and extremely challenging situation. It begins with the first attack of the pirates on his ship and puts the captain in increasingly difficult circumstances until things look like they couldn’t get any worse.

The final act resolves the primary conflict, in this case between the captain and the pirates, and returns the captain to normal life as a changed man.

All by-the-book screenwriting, and well done at that.

But what is missing is a deeper dimension to the protagonist’s character. This is also by-the-book screenwriting, by the way. The principal character should have not only an external, obvious motive and conflict to deal with—here it is trying to save his ship, his crew and his own life while dealing with volatile pirates—but an internal motive and conflict. It is the latter that was missing.

The screenplay could have either gone small, focusing on some character flaw of the captain that he would have to overcome, or gone big, making the captain and the pirates representative of a socio-political morality clash. The writer did neither, at least not with much depth.

Yes, we know that Captain Phillips loves his family and is concerned about his children’s future, and that would supplement his obvious motive to simply hang on to his life. But not much is done with this aspect of the plot. The captain’s family concerns do not seem related to any character flaw.

Writer Ray takes a small stab at going big, with an all-to-brief conversation between the captain and the pirate about the morality of piracy and the impact of Western commercial fishing on the Somali’s lives, but does not do much with this either.

In the end I did not feel I learned anything about life or human nature, other than the not-very-obscure point that a life-threatening situation will make you appreciate your family more.

I kept hoping to get something more than that. While watching the movie I picked up on a refrain repeated numerous times throughout the movie by various characters, “Everything’s gonna be okay,” sensing that it might tie in to some larger theme.

But alas, it did not. Yes, everything was okay for “Captain Phillips” the movie. Even more than okay; it was a good movie. It just could have better a little bit better.



  1. May 30, 2015 at 10:24 am

    Thoughtful review here AFZ-I may differ slightly in my perception, but I am with you completely on the post-trauma scene with Hanks-he has never been more affecting nor more real. It makes a deep impression. Here’s my take…

    Tom Hanks gives arguably (and there are certainly many alternatives from which to choose) his finest performance in the nail-biting thriller “Captain Phillips”. Based on the much-publicized 2009 high seas hijacking of a mega-cargo ship by desperate Somali pirates, Hanks plays the real life title character, Richard Phillips, with both depth and dignity. And his spot-on Boston accent only serves to add an extra-effective affectation to an overall riveting portrayal.

    While the vessel takeover by, and subsequent chase of, the African raiding crew by the U.S. Navy is an unrelenting edge-of-your-seat experience, it still did not provide the biggest impact for this reviewer. Those moments were reserved for the film’s final frames during and following Phillips’s breathtaking rescue. Hanks acting in these profoundly emotional scenes is real, raw and deeply moving. Never a false or unauthentic move. Watching a man who was so strong for so long finally, and inevitably, completely break down makes the movie’s ending epilogue that much more astonishing to learn.

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  2. Alan May 30, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    I just watched one of the DVD’s extra features, and discovered that that final scene was not in the script. In shooting the scene of Captain Phillips being taken aboard a rescue ship, they asked the captain of the rescue ship what they would have first done with him. He said send him to the infirmary. The director decided on the spot to go down to the infirmary and shoot the scene with the actual crew of the infirmary. The woman treating Hanks is an actual crew member. Amazing. Best scene in the movie!

  3. May 30, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    Wow. Very cool to know here. Makes it all that much more impactful, huh?


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