At the Movies: Captain Phillips

January 26th, 2014 14 Comments




Another movie in the running for all kinds of awards is Captain Phillips, the account of the real-life act of piracy off the coast of Somalia back in 2009. Okay, how do you take a highly publicized recent event, where the world and his wife and the little dog behind the stove all know the outcome, and make a terrifying nail-biter of it? Well, if you’re executive producer Kevin Spacey, writer Billy Ray, director Paul Greengrass, and star Tom Hanks, you do it so well that I had nightmares that night. Some of that, I admit, has to do with the still-lingering aftereffects of my own experiences of being held at gunpoint and shot (my bride, as tough a piece of work as ever survived Hollywood, slept like a baby), but much of it was due to the way the director keeps the tension building, which—in turn—was due to the performances.


Tom Hanks. Come on, I don’t have to tell you that Tom Hanks is a stone genius when it comes to acting. He’s one of our very best and I expect nothing less than brilliance from him. But the others! The director managed to find some Somali actors (at least, I assume they are Somali; for all I know they’re long-time residents of Wisconsin working at the Milwaukee Repertory) who are so convincing as the wild, desperate, doped-up, violent, unpredictable pirates that you honestly don’t know (in spite of having read all the newspapers and seen the television coverage of the actual event) if one of those lunatics is going to pull the trigger. I’ve obviously never seen or heard of any of these actors before, but they all—to a man—turned in brilliant, terrifying performances as men with none of the morality or reverence for life or even logical and linear thought processes that most of us take for granted, men driven as much by despair and fear of even worse men waiting for them back on land as they are by greed and amorality. The same goes for the actors who turned in such realistic performances as the terrified crew, and the calm, dispassionate Navy Seal team that brings the nightmare to a close. Every single one of them is so well cast and does such an honest job that you forget you’re watching a movie, and begin to believe you’re watching a documentary, which is why the tension becomes so unbearable.


Kudos especially to director Paul Greengrass. He is, apparently, known for his use of hand-held cameras, which contributes to the documentary style, but he also made brilliant use of the limitations of his locations. The ocean, the vastness and emptiness of it, and how both vastness and emptiness become more and more ominous as the drama unfolds. The staggering size of the freighter that also becomes a cumbersome, threatening handicap to Captain Phillips and his crew. The terrifying, nauseating, claustrophobic confines of the lifeboat where the final hours of the ordeal play out.


Since the real story is so well known, I’m not concerned with spoiling any surprises at the end, so I will tell you that after the final shooting there is a very quick scene of the Seal team—coldly capable professionals whose muscular, rugged, clean-cut looks and discipline provide a stark contrast to the erratic and murderous frailty of the pirates—calmly and silently dismantling their weapons and gear and packing everything away, and that quick scene tells you more about those men than any high drama Hollywood has ever manufactured.


Go see Captain Phillips. You won’t be disappointed. You may lose some sleep, but you won’t be disappointed.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I could not help wondering why the movie was nominated and Tom Hanks wasn’t. That does not make a lot of sense me. After all he plays the led character in the movie. I remember the movie “Apollo 13” which was an absolute nail bitter even though I know how the story ended. Tom Hanks was brilliant in that movie too. Also, in the movie “Cast Away” his character starts to talk to a volleyball he named Wilson. Watch the movie. He acts as if he hears the volleyball answering him. I mean being able to act off a volleyball that has to be pure genius.

    If you want to see some real Navy Seals in action watch the movie “Acts of Valor.” However, there are scenes where some of the Navy Seals are shot and killed so that might be too much for you. Some times these kinds of movies will give me nightmares too.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The scene in this movie that blew me away, (and there were many terrific scenes), was at the end when Hanks as Captain Phillips starts crying while being examined, that desperate sobbing of someone who just escaped death, someone who held it together till the end and then his emotions let loose. Wow! Played to perfection. That scene stayed with me for quite a while.

    Hanks has never disappointed me in any role he’s done. I’m not watching Tom Hanks, I’m watching a character on the screen, a believable, totally embodied character.

    This guy is pure genius.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I happened to see a segment (on a program I can’t recall) on the making of Captain Phillips. The film makers held an open casting call for Somali-Americans. Barkhad Abdi (Muse in the movie) was born in Somalia and moved to the US when he was 14. The movie was his first acting role.

    The director kept the Somali actors separate from Tom Hanks until the unscripted scene when they burst onto the bridge. Tom Hanks said he couldn’t believe “someone so skinny could be so scary. ”

    Many of the military personnel in the movie were not actors either…playing themselves. The officer (?) not sure of her rank, that took care of Captain Phillips when he gets on this ship was a real military medic as well. For the first take she burst into tears getting “star struck,” the second take is the one you see in the movie.

    When a film of an actual event can have me on the edge of my seat actually wondering if I had my fast wrong, the movie maker as done a great job. I felt that way about Captain Phillips as well as the movie Argo. If you haven’t seen that one yet, it is worth watching.


  4. Anonymous says:

    JP I would have to agree with your opinion on Tom Hanks. He produced a show for HBO called Big Love starring Bill Paxton. Tom took a lot of criticism for this. Even being accused of anti Mormonism.

    Tena French Halifax Nova Scotia Canada

  5. Anonymous says:

    Bien que vous donniez souvent de bons conseils, je ne crois pas que j’irai voir ce film, mes nuits en seraient trop perturbées !!!!! Comme il s’agit d’une histoire vécue et que je suis très émotive, je risque de pleurer, pleurer et pleurer pendant et après le film 🙁
    Pourtant j’aime beaucoup Tom HANKS qui est un super acteur et réalisateur. Je l’ai beaucoup aimé dans la « ligne verte » film qui m’a aussi beaucoup émue et qui ne m’a pas laissée indifférente.
    On commence à retrouver votre blog d’avant et ça fait super plaisir !!!!! Patience, patience……..

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    this review is more detailed than your last one and I already have recommended it to my husband. In fact I´ve never seen a bad film with Tom Hanks. I already loved him in “The Money Pit” (where the laughter stuck in my throat thinking of my little house)…. “Scott & Huutsch” (another documentary 😉 ), “The Green Mile” and so many, many others. He´s almost something like a guarantee for a good movie. I´m really looking forward to see “Captain Phillips” in all it´s complexity and I estimate it´s one of the movies worth watching a couple of times.
    Of course very realistic shooting scenes will always stress you more than others and give you a taste of your posttraumatic stress syndrome again. I can imagine it might be very irritating when unexpected. Although I´m sorry that you´ll probably never get completely rid of it you seem to be quite well capable of bringing it to your mind that it´s just a movie. In your nightmares your mind still tries to come to terms with the assault. That´s only natural. And neccessary!
    Like many other readers of this blog I enjoy your reviews very much. Particularly I appreciate that they are entirely independent and written by somebody who really has a clue about the business AND the artistry.
    Thank you very much!!!!!

    Best wishes

  7. Anonymous says:

    I have heard a lot about the fact that Matthew Mcconauhgey lost a lot of weight to play an aids patient in “The Dallas Buyers Club”. Well Tom Hanks lost a great deal of weight for his role in the movie “Philadelphia.” He also played an aids patient and won an Oscar for his role.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Tom Hanks also played Walt Disney in the recent movie “Saving Mr. Banks.” I can not even imagine another actor who could fill those shoes. He had that role down flat even the part where he is on the show called “The Wonderful World of Disney” I remember watching that show as a child. There is a part in the movie where he tells P.L. Travis (Emma Thompson) a story about His (Disney’s) father. I was just astounded by the emotion he put into that.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Do you like Opera?

    I know some people hate it when I put on a YouTube video, but this is a scene from “Philadelphia” were Tom Hank’s character is with Denzel Washington’s character. First of all he is barely recognizable because of his weight loss and the raw emotion that he puts into this scene where he is describing an Opera song that he is listening to for Densel Washington’s character is absolutely astonishing.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I really enjoyed this movie. I used to be a Merchant Marine, having spent about ten years working on various ships. I did some deep sea sailing, but most of my time was spent on the Great Lakes. I miss the work and some of the people I met. It was a great job, though a lonely one.

    Oddly enough I have some personal connections to some of the people who were involved in this act of piracy and kidnapping. John Cronan, who was played in the movie by actor Chris Mulkey, was one of my instructors back in 2005 at the Maritime Academy when I was taking an upgrade course in Basic Engine/Plant Operations. Great guy. Great teacher.

    Now, I’m not one to spread rumors…but you can file this one under “hmmm interesting…” Another friend of mine, a close friend who I spent most of my early days with at the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training in Maryland, who I shall not mention by name and who I still keep in close contact with as he still works as a seaman for the union, was one of the assistant engineers that ran evaluations in the official decommissioning of the lifeboat Captain Philips was in. He told me he counted over 74 bullet holes in the bottom of the lifeboat that he believes were fired from underneath the craft in what appeared to be concentrated areas of fire. My friend, before joining the Merchant Marines, was a Force Recon Marine and on occasion trained with Navy Seals. He was telling me as a backup contingency, which Seals always have in place for any operation, might have been to have some guys in the water under the boat prepared to fire on areas inside the boat where the pirates were supposed to be. And it makes sense when you think about. But who knows if that is true or not, as the official report says that three snipers killed the pirates and nothing more. But then it wouldn’t be the first time that the capabilities of Nancy Seals have been hidden or downplayed.

    I enjoy shooting, as I know JP does as well. Being a good marksman is one thing, being a sniper is another. But then being a sniper shooting off the back deck of a Navy Destroyer with the hum and vibrations of the engine room below, and the roll and pitch of a ship at sea, shooting at a target this is also rolling and pitching that is no larger than a grapefruit (brain and stem area for a clean quick kill)…. impressive if not impossible. Yeah, they would have had guys in the water…

  11. Anonymous says:

    I know that the Oscars have an animation category so Darleen will be watching those as well. Are you going to watch the animation with her? That would be interesting to see what you thing of those.

    P.S. Watch for the snowman in “Frozen” who sings about wanting to be in the summer.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    somehow your latest blogs didn´t appear in the category “Blog”.
    I found them only by opening “January 2014”. That´s probably the reason why there are no comments, yet. It was a great pleasure to read “A Man with a Tight Mouth” again and I would have very much liked to read the other about the rodeos but it´s definately to long for this hour of the day. Hopefully you´re able to correct this malfunction.

    God bless you and your family and good night


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