‘Captain Phillips’ movie review: Tom Hanks in real-world Somali pirate thriller


A nail-biting document of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is a no-nonsense thriller that grabs you from the outset and never lets go. Like the director’s previous work – most notably United 93 – the film contains a heightened sense of realism that makes this true story all the more terrifying. 

In April, 2009, the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, en route from Oman to Mombasa, Kenya, was boarded by four Somali pirates attempting to hold the vessel – and its crew – for ransom; similar seizures in recent weeks had resulted in the successful extortion of millions of dollars. 

But while the pirates overcame great difficulty in just boarding the Alabama (fire hoses shot at their skiffs from the sides of the ships, tactical maneuvers created a turbulent wake, and the crew even fired flare guns at the machine-gun-toting Somalis), they encountered even greater difficulty while on board the ship, soon discovering they had little control over the situation. 

While the pirates held Captain Richard Phillips and a few other members of the crew hostage, the majority of the Alabama’s crew hid in the engine room. When pirate leader Abduwali Muse went looking for them in the darkened corridors, they managed to take him hostage. After some talks, the crew and the pirates negotiated an exchange that would see the pirates leaving the Alabama in a life vessel. 

But the exchange didn’t go as planned: the pirates fled with Phillips as their hostage, hoping to make it back to Somalia and hold him for ransom. This ultimately led to a multiple-day open sea hostage crisis involving the US Navy and SEAL Team Six.

Captain Phillips, written by Billy Ray (State of Play) from the novel A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Phillips and Stephan Talty, tells this story in matter-of-fact, hard-hitting fashion: no scene is wasted, no detail overlooked. 

While some few of the facts have been changed – every now and then a Hollywood moment pops up, and Phillips may not have been the hero the media and the movie (to a much lesser degree) make him out to be (eleven crew members have subsequently sued Maersk, claiming Phillips’ recklessness led to a disregard for their safety) – the film feels incredibly real.

A lot of that is down to director Greengrass and his trademark hyper-kinetic, shaky-cam filmmaking, which has been endlessly mimicked in almost every action film over the past decade. But few get it this right: while the script may contain a lot of the storytelling tropes that you’ll find in any based-on-a-true-story movie, it’s the filmmaking that really drives this home. 

In the film, Phillips is played by Tom Hanks in a carefully measured, slow-burn performance that ranks among the actor’s all-time best work. Phillips is not a particularly likable or heroic character, but Hanks imbues him with that everyman sense that allows the audience to intimately identify with him – and live these events through his perspective. His final scene is unforgettable. 

But matching Hanks’ Phillips step-for-step throughout the film is Barkhad Abdi as the young pirate leader Abduwali Muse. The film is careful to not to vilify the character, who is placed in the impossible situation of justifying the operation despite early losses (“we have bosses, too”) and just making it out alive, and Abdi perfectly captures the inner turmoil. 

A fascinating true story, and a fascinating film to match it. Captain Phillips is a riveting thriller that might get overlooked come awards season due to its genre, but make no mistake: this is one of the year’s best films. 

Note: about 5-10% of the dialogue here is in Somali, subtitled in Czech on Prague screens.

Captain Phillips


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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