Tom Hanks, left, and Barkhad Abdirahman star in a scene from the movie "Captain Phillips." (CNS photo/Columbia)
Alfred Hitchcock said that movies “are just normal life with all
the boring parts taken out.” Paul Greengrass, director of the newly released Captain Phillips, is known for his ability
to create thrilling films using real life stories, his masterpiece being United
93. Captain Phillips may have taken a few hours or days out of the
real hijacking of the container ship MV Maersk Alabama, but those were
probably almost as nerve-racking as ones left in.
This is an exceptional adventure film, and while it has the
audience hoping the good guys win and the bad guys lose, the “bad guys” also
have their story to tell. The four hijackers, the oldest of whom is only 19,
are ruthless killers, but they have their own reasons for taking Phillips. It’s
a rare film that shows the humanity of the enemy without condoning their
actions. Ultimately, Captain Phillips is about courage, self-sacrifice,
and the triumph of the American spirit. These films were common in the 40s and
50s; it’s refreshing to see one today.
The opening scene could be a home video; it shows a good, ordinary
man kissing his wife goodbye at the airport and going to work. Captain Richard
Phillips (Tom Hanks) drives cargo ships around the dangerous horn of Africa,
where groups of Somali pirates have been known to capture yachts and hold their
wealthy occupants for ransom. With something to prove and desperate to help his
poverty-stricken village, 18-year-old Abdulwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) heads up a
team of pirates eyeing a bigger prize: a large American cargo ship. Despite
Phillips’ quick thinking, the pirates are successful in boarding the vessel.
Phillips manages to save his crew but is taken for ransom in a lifeboat,
potentially “laying down his own life to save his friends.” He is disciplined, smart,
and brave, and little of this changes throughout the film. Normally, this lack
of character development could make a story boring, but here it is a joy to
watch how Phillips navigates this fallen world, especially when negotiating
with the equally strong-willed Muse.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute
you.” He commands this partly to help people see themselves and their own
faults in their enemies. While Phillips is straight as an arrow, the four
pirates are complex. The driver is a workhorse who is content with exercising
his skills. The oldest pirate is aggressive and several times attempts to
convince his comrades to kill Phillips. The youngest, barely sixteen, is
gravely wounded early in the film and wants nothing more to just get home.
Then, there is Muse, the leader. He tells Phillips that this “is
just business.” In many ways, though perverted by sin, he is the same as the Alabama’s
captain, strong and courageous. He treats Phillips with respect but is smart
enough not to let him get away with any tricks. He also keeps a calm head, even
when he is temporarily captured by Phillips’ crew, and tries to make Phillips
comfortable, protecting him from his more murderous friend during this ordeal.
The actions of the pirates are never justified; what they did was clearly
wrong. However, Greengrass never lets the audience forget that these are humans
It’s so strange to see a really patriotic film these days. Not a
film that glorifies violence or pushes an agenda, but a film about real Americans
doing their job well. Phillips is an average Joe who exemplifies the cardinal
virtue of courage: doing the right thing even under duress. His crew, while
imperfect, performs well under pressure. When the life of one American is in
serious jeopardy, the Navy swoops in to help. It offers food and water to the
pirates to keep their mind and bodies together. Navy ship Commander Frank
Castellano (a real-life Knight of Columbus) tries desperately to find a
Finally, the Navy SEALS are called in to use deadly force only
when absolutely necessary and end the four-day trial in seconds. It’s a film
that celebrates not only America’s goodness and strength but the victory of
Christian culture over barbarism. The pirates are under the command, not of a
government, but a ruthless warlord who preys on the poor who do his dirty work.
Yet this genuine spirit of patriotism is balanced with the realities of the
global village. Muse says that his people were fishermen until the Western
world drained their oceans of its precious resources. Recognizing Muse’s
intelligence, Phillips is intrigued. “There’s got to be something other than
being a fisherman or kidnapping people,” he inquires. “Maybe in America,” Muse
responds. No murder or kidnapping is ever justifiable, but the United States
ignores the consequences of its international actions and the social needs of
other countries at its own peril.
Saved from his captors and being examined by a medic, for
the first time Phillips is able to take in the enormity of what just occurred.
He breaks down, weeping and shaking uncontrollably from shock, telling the
medic to inform his family he is okay. These few minutes of “fear and
trembling” are worth the price of admission alone. At the same time, Muse is
being read his rights and is heading off to prison, a fate much, much better
than coming home to Somalia empty-handed. It is good that Muse lost and is
going to jail but also good that he survived. The end of Captain Phillips is one of the most horrifying and accurate responses to sin I have ever seen in a movie.