Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Bravery or Bravado? Tom Hanks’ Gripping ‘Captain Phillips’ [Movie Review]

The gripping 'Captain Phillips' starring Tom Hanks touches on the complex geopolitical problems that have somewhat forced many into piracy.

By Mark HadleyWednesday 23 Oct 2013MoviesReading Time: 3 minutes

Captain Phillips is as thrilling a film as you could hope for from a plot that embraces Somali pirates, a stand-off on the high seas and a deadly US Navy SEAL team. As entertainment it also highlights just the sort of heroes we would hope to encounter in such a situation. But a hero’s identity actually depends more on his thoughts than his deeds.

Mark Hadley reviews 'Captain Phillips'.

Captain Phillips is based on the true story of the 2009 hi-jacking of the US-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama. Tom Hanks stars as the titular commander charged with carrying relief supplies to stricken African countries. After only days at sea he receives a warning that pirates are operating off the coast of Somalia and when two small vessels close in on his freighter his worst fears are realized. Phillips begins a spirited defense of a vessel that was never meant to repel boarders. When Somali pirates finally reach the deck he has moments to both disable the ship and hide his crew. Their plans frustrated, the marauders abandon the Alabama in one of the ship’s lifeboats. However they take the captain with them with dreams of ransoming him for millions of dollars. Meantime the US Navy has responded in force, delivering a SEAL team to take out the kidnappers. But the Somali pirates are only miles from home and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse ensues with captain’s death the likeliest outcome.

Captain Phillips touches on the geopolitical problems that have made piracy something of a forced occupation for countries brought to the brink of destitution by international forces. However Hanks does an excellent job of presenting an everyday man caught up in these larger than life problems. In his hands Phillips becomes a character whose heroic qualities centre on his preparedness to sacrifice for others. So as the pirates prepare to shoot crew members, Phillips offers up his own life:

Richard: “I’m the captain! If you want to shoot someone, shoot me!”

Pirate: “You are killing him.”

Richard: “Then shoot me! “

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Captain Phillips touts itself as a real life thriller that sails as close to the true story as possible. But is the officer at its heart really the hero we’d like to believe in?

The film is based on Phillips’ own best-selling book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. Speaking from the film’s set the real Richard Phillips said he was devoted to his crew’s safety, and the story is an accurate reflection of what happened. However the Alabama’s crew say it’s not a fair picture of the man.

Eleven members including bridge officers have launched a court case claiming Phillips recklessly endangered their lives. According to evidence tendered Captain Phillips received seven emails alerting him to piratical activity, ignored an advisory recommending ships stay 1,100 kilometres from the coast of Somalia, and even insisted on continuing a lifeboat drill as the pirates approached. Rather than self-sacrificing and heroic the crew describe Phillips as sullen and self-righteous.

The events that took place are not in dispute by either party, but the attitude behind Captain Phillips’ behaviour is crucial. After all, the difference between bravery and bravado is tied up in a man’s motivation. If the crew was uppermost in Phillips’ mind, then he is indeed a hero. If, however, it was pride and the company’s bottom line then this film could look quite different.

Captain Phillips is an excellent watch, but we may never know if this officer was the champion or the cause of the danger that beset the Alabama. His motivations are too open to dispute. But Captain Phillips’ vulnerability is Christ’s strength. People have tried to read different motivations into his words and deeds but his long-term character is too clear for the evidence to be easily distorted. Where this captain might be charged with arrogance, no-one reading about Jesus washing feet, walking with sinners or making time for children could suffer the accusation. And if Phillips’ account is self-serving then there’s little doubt that Christ gained nothing personally from making his way to a Roman cross. A life of service assures us that Jesus became death’s hostage because he knew doing so would set us free.

Rating: M
Distributor: Sony
Release Date: October 24