Review: Captain Phillips

Underhill, Vermont March 28th 2009. Captain Richard Phillips and his wife Andrea drive towards the airport surrounded by thousands of cars and trucks going about their daily business. Their collective dollar value is immense but the married couple don’t give it a second thought. And why should they? The car is America, a symbol of wealth and power, a divine right ordained on the millions so they can exist and thrive in God’s own country. Do any of us really stop and think to how these mechanical marvels appear on our forecourts or drives?

“You’d think these trips would get easier, but it’s just the opposite,” laments Andrea. Phillips is about to take command of the MV Maersk Alabama container ship from the Port of Salalah in Oman to the Gulf of Aden to Mombasa. He’s going through the notorious pirate waters off of the coast of Somalia but Andrea is thinking of the personal cost to their family. The months they spend apart, their son Danny is flunking school, the competition to find jobs during the financial crisis, first world problems. “This is our life,” continues Andrea. She could be talking about the audience in the multiplex, guzzling super sized cokes and popcorn.

Poverty is relative and on a beach in Somalia, a pirate community is gearing up for a raid. Everything is recycled, functional, plastic and corrugated iron hovels house the raiders, fisherman with AK47s, their nets long empty due to foreign industrialisation and civil war. The picking of the crews is noisy and violent, the difference between starvation and salvation. Abduwali Muse (an electrifying debut by Barkhad Abdi) is among their number, lean, wiry alert, chewing khat to keep that way. He joins the other desperate men on their skiffs as they ride the waves to their mother ship, a battered fishing vessel that now hunts for richer, deadlier prey.

On board his vessel Phillips is fit and studious, manoeuvring around the container ship with professional purpose. He wants his men drilled, ready to repel boarders with water canons and locked cages. His crew like their coffee breaks and stories, they’re slow to their muster stations, hiding behind union protocols when the job has clearly shifted beyond them-do pirates have a professional organisation to complain to? The drill quickly becomes a “Real world” situation when two skiffs appear on the radar, continuing their pursuit when Phillips orders a change of course.

The wake, the spray is deafening as the two skiffs close on the lumbering leviathan. This is 19th Century whaling in the contemporary age. Boarding ladders and assault rifles in place of harpoons and oars. It should be preposterous, the image of an industrial giant brought low by third world minnows but it remains a powerful metaphor of globalisation, the cause and effect of rampant capitalism. Preposterous but never anything other than exciting, gripping, multiple hand held cameras capture the action, interspersed with long shots that remind us that our planet can still be gargantuan when it puts its mind to it. The sea-lanes were the first information superhighways; they are still the real power behind the convenience of Internet shopping.

Once the maritime ballet ends Phillips battens down the hatches and prepares to be boarded. The shipping company has a plan that is little better than a game of hide and seek, grown men disappearing into the belly of their beast, sweating and hoping that the pirates get bored and slope back to land. So Phillips and Muse come face to face, the logical conclusion of the capitalist system. It’s a claustrophobic battle of nerves, the rules of engagement unsure and untested, this generation’s submarine movie, and director Paul Greengrass expertly schools his audience in this new kind of economic warfare.

“Captain Phillips” once again proves Greengrass is the master of the modern action picture, smart and thrillingly contemporary. Through films like the “Bourne” series, “United 93” and ‘Greenzone,” Greengrass is a director that constantly delivers the goods–just imagine how desperate the “Bond” franchise must be to poach the very man who inadvertently made them reboot their entire brand. His ultra realism has its roots in the movies of his hero, the late, great Alan Clarke of whom Greengrass said, “As a director you have to try to be like Alan Clarke – anonymous, subversive, compassionate, moral. And it’s all in the looks and the movement.”

Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips gives another remarkable performance of a professional man finally breaking down under severe pressure. His last scene is astonishing as he goes into shock in the care of the Navy automatons that give him medical attention. Only in “Saving Private Ryan” when his Ranger Captain loses control of his men has he been better. Quiet and alone, hidden from his men in that film Hanks comes apart and then rebuilds his courage. So are we in danger of taking Hanks and Greengrass for granted just as we do the motorcar?


Mark Farnsworth

Senior Film Writer Mark Farnsworth teaches Film in East London and is currently working on two screenplays, The Mysteries and Fair Access. He also writes the Oh/Cult section for