3 Stars – Suspenseful

Pirates are often romanticized, used as sports mascots and even as fantasy figures for children.  But when Somali pirates abducted Captain Phillips in the spring of 2009, there was nothing appealing or romantic about them.  Brutal and brutalized, these desperate men were as much pawns in their own pirate crew as Captain Phillips was in their attempted plot.  Bringing this harrowing experience to the screen is director Paul Greengrass who has mastered the creation of suspenseful tales as seen in his films The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Supremacy and United 93.

Surviving the attack, Capt. Phillips uses the skills of Stephan Taity to help write a first-person account of the actual event.  Taking this account and adapting it for the screen is screenwriter Billy Ray.  His work on Hunger Games, Shattered Glass and Hart’s War brings experience and nuance to the tale.  But it is the acting of Tom Hanks that is both believable and identifiable.  From the first scenes when he expresses to his wife (Catherine Keener) his concern for his kids to the final scenes when he is struggling with a post-traumatic reaction, we are captured by his courage, his intelligence and his authenticity.

There are three primary groups of people involved in this event.  There is the crew of the American cargo vessel, MV Maersk Alabama, under Capt. Phillips command, the Somali pirates under “Capt.” Muse (Barkhad Abdi), and the U.S. Navy anti-piracy taskforce under Capt. Frank Castello (Yul Vazquez).  Although very different in style, each one of these captains is responsible for what their crews are and are not able to do with each providing a fascinating study of leadership.  Similarly, the second in command on each of the crews demonstrates dramatic differences in the ways the U.S. Navy operates contrasted with the infighting of the pirate crews or the concerns of union members on the cargo vessel.  Such differences are seen not only in the motivations of each person but also in their level of respect and effectiveness.

Though the film does not focus on geopolitical issues or global economic inequities, it is clear that piracy undermines the lives of all people, those caught up in the brutal underworld it produces as well as those attempting to transport goods and humanitarian relief in commercial vessels.  However, finding a solution to the destructive decisions humans make to murder and steal is not just an economic, political or military question, it is first and primarily a spiritual one.  That makes the film’s omission of the Christian faith of Capt. Phillips a disappointment. 

In an interview following his freedom that occurred appropriately on Easter Sunday of 2009, Capt. Philips explained:  “There is power in prayer and it did help me.  When I talked to God and prayed, I did not pray for an escape.  I prayed for strength and patience.  I prayed that God would let me have the strength to continue and to know when to escape and the patience to wait for that time.” ( ) Understanding his Christian faith helps us understand his actions in the moment of attack when he willingly laid down his life to protect his crew.  That is faith in action and worthy of at least a mention on screen when attempting to portray a true event.  If the whole story had been told, we would have discovered the whole truth of the account of this American hero and understood the Source of his strength and sacrifice.

Discussion for those who have seen this film:

1. The courage to face danger is something we discover only when we are in a situation such as the one Captain Phillips faced.  When you face danger, where is the source of your courage?

2. Capt. Phillips is the first American Captain to be taken captive by pirates in 200 years.  Undoubtedly, the response of the U.S. Military to protect Americans is a primary reason.  Do you think our military should also work to save others and stop piracy for everyone?  Why do you answer as you do?

3. The compassion Captain Phillips showed to the youngest pirate came from his respect for their common humanity.  How would you have responded to the pirates had you been in Capt. Phillips’ place?

Posted on April 1, 2014 and filed under 3 STARS, SUSPENSEFUL.