Movie Review: Captain Phillips

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MV5BMTQzNzExMDg3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODU1NzEzMDE@._V1_SX214_A day that starts like any other… ends with a story of a lifetime.

Director Paul Greengrass (“Bourne” trilogy) and writer Billy Ray retell a ripped-from-the headlines story of a U.S. cargo ship getting hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, the first in 200 years.  Adapted from “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” “Captain Phillips” is a dramatic docudrama, shot in a similar fashion as “United 93.”

If anything can be learned from last year’s best picture, “Argo,”or nominated “Zero Dark Thirty,” when expertly executed, the journey matters, even when most are familiar with the destination.

The opening scenes offer a glimpse of the harsh life on the shores of impoverished Somalia and a normal American life. Tom Hanks (“Cloud Atlas”) is Richard Phillips, a family man from Vermont and commanding officer of Maerks Alabama.  His job is to steer the ship, carrying food and commercial goods, from Oman to Kenya, around the pirate-infested waters of the Horn of Africa. 

The day aboard the ship begins with a safety drill, which rapidly turns into a traumatic ordeal as soon as Phillips spots two small boats carrying pirates on their tail.  While the ship has speed, height and hoses as means of protection, it’s not enough to fend off one determined skiff. 

Phillips has established initial contacts with government agencies and got most of his crew hidden in the belly of the ship.  But soon he and his officers find themselves surrounded by four armed Somali pirates.  There’s one particularly tense scene where one of the pirates is ready to pull the trigger on one of his officers, whilst Phillips tries to rationalize and plead with the leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). 

The pirates demand room-by-room search to find the majority of the crew.  Secretly communicating with one another, Phillips and his crew engineer a trick to injure one of the pirates.  This leads to unpredictable chain of events where the pirates finally agree to take off in a lifeboat – taking Phillips with them.  Cash emptied from the safe deposit box is meager; they want millions.  

Now with a single life at stake, one might think that the suspense may lessen.  On the contrary, the tension, underscored by a pulse-pounding soundtrack, skyrockets to an unbelievable level in the last third of the film.  The nighttime standoff and sea rescue mission are grippingly well-orchestrated, a testament to the finest form of filmmaking.  The cool coordination, negotiation and precise execution conducted by the rescuers contrast with the chaos and confusion inside the compact confinement of the lifeboat with Phillips and the pirates.

Hanks excels as Phillips with his everyman persona.  His portrayal shows a deep range of emotions.  Beginning with a crestfallen look when he realizes the magnitude of the situation, to bravery and composure under pressure, shifting to guttural fear, desperation, agony, shell-shocked disorientation and finally, relief.  Hanks shows one of the most outstanding acting performances during what could be the last stretch of Phillips’ life.  Your stomach will be tied in knots and you’ll eventually exhale along with him. 

Abdi, an amateur actor, holds his own.  His Muse’s nickname may be “Skinny,” but he doesn’t skimp on threats, even when he realizes he’s running out of time and options.  And his right-hand man is one scary dude.  All the shouting can be a little excessive at times, but the foursome perform well.  Even when you can’t condone the pirates’ actions, it does give you an understanding where they’re coming from. 

A riveting, real-life thriller, “Captain Phillips” is one of the best films of the year.

Copyright (c) 2013. Nathalia Aryani.

Nathalia Aryani is a business manager, foreign language translator, film columnist and travel/lifestyle writer.  She can be reached at  Nathalia owns a movie blog, The MovieMaven ( Twitter:

Nathalia Aryani is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic ( She has a movie blog, The MovieMaven ( Twitter: @the_moviemaven. She can be reached at [email protected].

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