O Captain, My Captain

Tom Hanks is riveting in real-life high-seas drama

Tom Hanks

Captain Phillips

Starring Tom Hanks

Directed by Paul Greengrass

PG-13, 134 min., released Oct. 11, 2013

First of all, finally—a movie about pirates that doesn’t have anything to do with Johnny Depp.

The rascally, comically rakish Capt. Jack Sparrow in five Disney Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, Depp is nowhere to be found in this pulse-pounding drama based on the real-life 2009 pirate hijacking of an American cargo ship off the coast of Africa.

And these pirates are a world away from Disneyland, in every way. A desperate bunch of gun-toting coastal villagers from chaotic, war-torn Somalia who attack the massive Maersk Alabama in their small fishing boat, they light the fuse on an international drama that ultimately draws the explosive deadly force of the U.S. Navy and its elite special ops SEALs.930353 - Captain Phillips

Director Paul Greengrass, who previously steered two Bourne spy thrillers and the nail-biting, real-time United 93, starts the story as the commercial captain of the title (Tom Hanks) departs his Vermont home for Africa, where he’ll meet his ship, his crew and his fate.

In the first scene, we eavesdrop on the conversation between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) on the way to the airport about how their kids should study harder in school to keep up with the big, changing world in which they’ll soon become adults—a foreshadowing of the grueling tutorial on the imbalance of global economics Phillips will soon get first-hand on the other side of the globe.

Working from a taut screenplay by Billy Ray (based on Richard Phillips’ book, A Captain’s Duty, about the incident), Greengrass shifts his cinematic canvas from the vastness of the open ocean to the stifling confines of a claustrophobic closed lifeboat in which the final high-wire act plays out.

In the title role, Hanks reminds us why he’s one of the most versatile actors in all of modern movies, capable of just about anything. As Capt. Phillips’ situation moves from bad to worse, his performance intensifies to a rawness that will leave a lot of viewers gasping—if not weeping—along with him at the end.

Tom HanksA movie “based on real events” can often be at a bit of a dramatic disadvantage in that audiences know everything that happened—or at least they think they do. But even if that’s the case here, it doesn’t matter: Greengrass draws out the tension, the suspense, and the sense that anything can happen into the very final moments.

(A new chapter emerged recently, however, as some of the real crew members involved in the incident brought a $50 million lawsuit against their employers, claiming that Phillips and the Maersk shipping line put their lives in danger by taking unnecessary risks—and that the real-life Capt. Phillips wasn’t quite the hero the movie makes him out to be.)

But if the story unfolded anywhere close to the way it’s depicted on the screen, it’s impossible not to come away from it somewhat moved, if not shaken, after watching this high-seas, high-stakes saga that didn’t spring from someone’s imagination, from a comic book, or from an amusement park ride—but rather from the real world in which we live, and one that really happened, to real people, not so long ago.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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