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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

Captain Phillips

By
John P. McCarthy
Source: Catholic News Service


Tom Hanks, left, and Barkhad Abdirahman star in a scene from the movie "Captain Phillips."
Docudramas tend to underwhelm emotionally, intellectually or both. That's not the case with "Captain Phillips" (Columbia), a complex and compassionate film that engrosses from the start and builds inexorably toward a devastating conclusion. Prepare to be hooked.

Considered alongside his 2006 project "United 93," about the airplane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, this movie establishes director Paul Greengrass as a master of the docudrama format. Not only does he skillfully re-create a harrowing maritime ordeal, he keeps the humanity of all those concerned in the foreground. Exhibiting a rare combination of empathy and technical virtuosity, the picture highlights numerous moral dilemmas without passing conclusive judgment on any of them.

Tom Hanks portrays Richard Phillips, the American skipper of a container ship who was kidnapped by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa in 2009. As Phillips and his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), drive to the airport from their Vermont home in the first scene, the tension is already profound. Then we're shown male villagers on the coast of Somalia preparing to target vessels in international waters.

When Phillips' command, the Maersk Alabama, leaves Oman with a crew of 20 en route to its first port of call, Mombasa, Kenya—where it will unload humanitarian supplies—an encounter between the two sides becomes inevitable. Mindful of increased pirate activity, Phillips focuses on security, but water hoses constitute his unarmed crew's primary defense.

Led by a skinny man called Muse (Barkhad Abdi), four fishermen-turned-pirates board the Alabama and eventually take Phillips hostage on a lifeboat. A U.S. naval task force responds. Its mission is to intercept the boat before it reaches the Somali coast and Phillips is ransomed for millions of dollars. After a Navy SEAL team arrives, the situation devolves into one of desperation for the Somalis -- and for Phillips.

Being aware of the general outcome doesn't diminish the intensity for viewers. A surprising amount of emotion is wrung from the story and many resonant themes bob to the surface. These motifs cluster around one form of power disparity or another -- economic, military and interpersonal. And the vulnerability of each party is keenly felt at some point.

There are moments when it seems on the verge of striking a triumphal note, but "Captain Phillips" never trumpets American military might. Nor are the Somalis demonized. They're motivation is money, not a terrorist ideology, and they answer to a warlord. For their part, the American forces act at the behest of politicians.

Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray, who based the script on Phillips' memoir—written with Stephan Talty—home in on the emotional heart of each scene. Although there's no reason to doubt its accuracy, fealty to the facts, or at least the facts according to Phillips, becomes a secondary concern as artistry supersedes genre distinctions.

Henry Jackman's intrusive score is the only major flaw. By trying to carry too much of the expressive burden, the music threatens to overwhelm the experience. Still, other aspects of the production, such as taut editing and cinematography and sterling acting, diminish the negative impact of the aural onslaught.

Hanks delivers one of his most nuanced performances. Often when interacting with his captors, it's unclear whether Phillips is being wily or considerate, scheming for his release or behaving altruistically. This uncertainty adds another layer of depth. And Abdi's memorable turn as Muse provides a fascinating counterweight to the title character.

"Captain Phillips" leaves the viewer with mixed feelings yet few unanswered questions. Its equanimity and determination to keep everyone's humanity intact, even those who lose their lives, implies that human beings are always the most precious cargo, no matter the circumstances.

Because its fair and empathetic treatment provides a model for processing the events depicted, "Captain Phillips" is probably suitable for older teens, the elements listed below notwithstanding.

The film contains numerous menacing sequences, several violent episodes with nongraphic bloody images, substance abuse, two instances of profanity and three uses of crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

*****
John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.



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John Vianney: A man with vision overcomes obstacles and performs deeds that seem impossible. John Vianney was a man with vision: He wanted to become a priest. But he had to overcome his meager formal schooling, which inadequately prepared him for seminary studies. 
<p>His failure to comprehend Latin lectures forced him to discontinue. But his vision of being a priest urged him to seek private tutoring. After a lengthy battle with the books, John was ordained. </p><p>Situations calling for “impossible” deeds followed him everywhere. As pastor of the parish at Ars, John encountered people who were indifferent and quite comfortable with their style of living. His vision led him through severe fasts and short nights of sleep. (Some devils can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.) </p><p>With Catherine Lassagne and Benedicta Lardet, he established La Providence, a home for girls. Only a man of vision could have such trust that God would provide for the spiritual and material needs of all those who came to make La Providence their home. </p><p>His work as a confessor is John Vianney’s most remarkable accomplishment. In the winter months he was to spend 11 to 12 hours daily reconciling people with God. In the summer months this time was increased to 16 hours. Unless a man was dedicated to his vision of a priestly vocation, he could not have endured this giving of self day after day. </p><p>Many people look forward to retirement and taking it easy, doing the things they always wanted to do but never had the time. But John Vianney had no thoughts of retirement. As his fame spread, more hours were consumed in serving God’s people. Even the few hours he would allow himself for sleep were disturbed frequently by the devil. </p><p>Who, but a man with vision, could keep going with ever-increasing strength? In 1929, Pope Pius XI named him the patron of parish priests worldwide.</p> American Catholic Blog The most beautiful and spontaneous expressions of joy which I have seen during my life were by poor people who had little to hold on to. –Pope Francis

Stumble Virtue Vice and the Space Between

 
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