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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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Athanasius: Athanasius led a tumultuous but dedicated life of service to the Church. He was the great champion of the faith against the widespread heresy of Arianism, the teaching by Arius that Jesus was not truly divine. The vigor of his writings earned him the title of doctor of the Church. 
<p>Born of a Christian family in Alexandria, Egypt, and given a classical education, Athanasius became secretary to Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, entered the priesthood and was eventually named bishop himself. His predecessor, Alexander, had been an outspoken critic of a new movement growing in the East—Arianism. </p><p>When Athanasius assumed his role as bishop of Alexandria, he continued the fight against Arianism. At first it seemed that the battle would be easily won and that Arianism would be condemned. Such, however, did not prove to be the case. The Council of Tyre was called and for several reasons that are still unclear, the Emperor Constantine exiled Athanasius to northern Gaul. This was to be the first in a series of travels and exiles reminiscent of the life of St. Paul. </p><p>After Constantine died, his son restored Athanasius as bishop. This lasted only a year, however, for he was deposed once again by a coalition of Arian bishops. Athanasius took his case to Rome, and Pope Julius I called a synod to review the case and other related matters. </p><p>Five times Athanasius was exiled for his defense of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. During one period of his life, he enjoyed 10 years of relative peace—reading, writing and promoting the Christian life along the lines of the monastic ideal to which he was greatly devoted. His dogmatic and historical writings are almost all polemic, directed against every aspect of Arianism. </p><p>Among his ascetical writings, his<i> Life of St. Anthony</i> (January 17) achieved astonishing popularity and contributed greatly to the establishment of monastic life throughout the Western Christian world.</p> American Catholic Blog Suffering is redemptive in part because it definitively reveals to man that he is not in fact God, and it thereby opens the human person to receive the divine.

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