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Captain Phillips

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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Charles de Foucauld: Born into an aristocratic family in Strasbourg, France, Charles was orphaned at the age of six, raised by his devout grandfather, rejected the Catholic faith as a teenager and joined the French army. Inheriting a great deal of money from his grandfather, Charles went to Algeria with his regiment, but not without his mistress, Mimi. <br /><br />When he declined to give her up, he was dismissed from the army. Still in Algeria when he left Mimi, Charles reenlisted in the army. Refused permission to make a scientific exploration of nearby Morocco, he resigned from the service. With the help of a Jewish rabbi, Charles disguised himself as a Jew and in 1883 began a one-year exploration that he recorded in a book that was well received. <br /><br />Inspired by the Jews and Muslims whom he met, Charles resumed the practice of his Catholic faith when he returned to France in 1886. He joined a Trappist monastery in Ardeche, France, and later transferred to one in Akbes, Syria. Leaving the monastery in 1897, Charles worked as gardener and sacristan for the Poor Clare nuns in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. In 1901 he returned to France and was ordained a priest. <br /><br />Later that year Charles journeyed to Beni-Abbes, Morocco, intending to found a monastic religious community in North Africa that offered hospitality to Christians, Muslims, Jews, or people with no religion. He lived a peaceful, hidden life but attracted no companions. <br /><br />A former army comrade invited him to live among the Tuareg people in Algeria. Charles learned their language enough to write a Tuareg-French and French-Tuareg dictionary, and to translate the Gospels into Tuareg. In 1905 he came to Tamanrasset, where he lived the rest of his life. A two-volume collection of Charles' Tuareg poetry was published after his death. <br /><br />In early 1909 he visited France and established an association of laypeople who pledged to live by the Gospels. His return to Tamanrasset was welcomed by the Tuareg. In 1915 Charles wrote to Louis Massignon: “The love of God, the love for one’s neighbor…All religion is found there…How to get to that point? Not in a day since it is perfection itself: it is the goal we must always aim for, which we must unceasingly try to reach and that we will only attain in heaven.”   <br /><br />The outbreak of World War I led to attacks on the French in Algeria. Seized in a raid by another tribe, Charles and two French soldiers coming to visit him were shot to death on December 1, 1916. <br />Five religious congregations, associations, and spiritual institutes (Little Brothers of Jesus, Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Little Sisters of Jesus, Little Brothers of the Gospel and Little Sisters of the Gospel) draw inspiration from the peaceful, largely hidden, yet hospitable life that characterized Charles. He was beatified on November 13, 2005. American Catholic Blog You know, O my God, I have never desired anything but to love you, and I am ambitious for no other glory.

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