“Captain Phillips” is Tom Hanks at his very best but the film raises questions

There are just so many ways to go in writing a review of the true story of Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips of the MV Maersk Alabama.  In 2008 his ship was boarded by four Somali pirates and the captain was taken hostage. The film is titled simply: “Captain Phillips.”

As a film, director Paul Greengrass’ work is unembellished, dramatic and moving.

As for Tom Hanks’ performance, it is so understated that it makes him completely believable. He is the quintessential “everyman” here and I want him to run for president (a 2013 Reader’s Digest poll shows that Tom Hanks is the #1 trusted person in America.)  Captain Phillips was no cowboy. He was just doing his job – admirably and with calm strength. A hero who stood up for his men.

I want to use the first paragraph of Walt Whitman’s poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln, not because Captain Phillips was killed – but because he could have been and would have given his life for his men.

“O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting …”

Then there is the U.S. military analysis. “Captain Phillips” plays like an extended commercial for the U.S. Navy. The film compresses a few days into two hours and screenwriter Billy Ray based his script on Phillips’ memoir, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and  Dangerous Days at Sea.” And not to take anything away from the heroism of Captain Phillips and his crew (even as some of them a suing Maersk for allowing the Alabama to sail too close to the Somali shore in an area infested with pirates), I can only wonder why the United States pulled out all the stops for this one ship, this one captain. If pirates take hostage another American flagship captain, will he or she get the full force of the American Navy to rescue him? I was extremely happy that Captain Phillips was rescued but sorry for the way it went down.  And so was Captain Phillips who did his best to talk down his captors. But what a show of power.

It is necessary, for the thoughtful viewer I think, to consider the Somali pirates themselves (most convincingly portrayed by first-time actors). The dialogue opens up a small window on the gross poverty and lack of opportunity in Somalia compared to what American has. In the brief time the film spends in a Somali village we learn that this is no tourist destination and that poverty and criminal activity are pervasive.  From our comfort zone we say that poverty and corruption gives these pirates no right to take what is not theirs, but we speak from a position of privilege, comfort, and power that they only see on television or in the movies.

In the United States the political rhetoric is all about preserving America’s interests in the world and upholding our values by threatening violence.

But at what cost our well-being?  And what about everyone else in the world?

When there is justice peace will follow.

Maybe if American and other advanced nations would consider the poor, piracy and other incidents would lessen because people’s basic needs are met – and then some.

I would not be surprised if Tom Hanks wins an Oscar for his portrayal of Captain Phillips, and perhaps the film will pick up several nominations and wins in other categories, too.  At the end of the day, the film has a B.K. rating.

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  • Marlene Sharp

    Kudos on an excellent piece, Sister Rose!

  • John W. Morehead

    A thought provoking piece. Much like terrorism, motivated more by things like access to basic living items and wealth than religion and thus providing a challenge to the West, the lack in Somali provides insights into motivations for piracy. Even so, just as the factors that lead to terrorism do not justify that violence, those leading to piracy do not justify these criminal acts.

  • gsk

    I just came from seeing it, and it was fantastic. Hanks’ performance was stellar. The brief exchange about the situation in Somalia was clearly supposed to plant a seed: “What else were they supposed to do, given their grinding poverty?” But other parts of the world have dealt with poverty and lack of opportunity differently. Warlords and dictators in so many places make life miserable for their own people, destroying all opportunities for development. I don’t defend materialism, but there was charitable aid on that ship along with the other goods.

    So much money previously appropriated by the Somalis (perhaps even UN dollars?) was spent on guns, phones, and other items necessary for piracy, instead of investing in better things. There are always choices…

  • marysweeney

    Great review. Re the “I can only wonder why the United States pulled out all the stops for this one ship, this one captain”, My understanding from the book and Wikipedia is that the Maersk Alabama “…was the first successful pirate seizure of a ship registered under the American flag since the early 19th century. It
    was the sixth vessel in a week to be attacked by pirates who had previously
    extorted ransoms in the tens of millions of dollars.” Early 19th century is early 1800′s. Perhaps that gives some context.

    My own further thoughts and tandem movie recommendation here:

    Great Christiane Amanpour interview with (in alphabetical order) Barkhad Abdi, Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks here:

    The poem definitely fits.