Captain Courageous

A review of "Captain Phillips"

MPAA Rating, PG-13


Reel Rating,                

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 too.

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 peaceful solution.

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. 

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About Nick Olszyk 189 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.