Captain Phillips: It’s Just Business

by Sandra Olmsted

In Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass turns his eye for realism on true story of a container ship captain and the impoverished pirates who come for his ship. From the beginning of the film, Greengrass cuts between the American captain and Somali pirates preparing to go to sea. Later Billy Ray’s script allows the pirate who leads the group, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), say to title character Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) that they are the same. Disturbingly and subtly, the film asks what these resourceful young men might have done if given an option besides pirating. While the unsettling qualities of this theme play out in the comfort of the modern haves verses the wretchedness of the third world have-nots, from the international politics of aid for the less fortunate versus the commerce of international business, and from empathizing with the bad guys, as if the viewers themselves suffer from Stockholm syndrome. Even the scariest of the pirates, Najee (Faysal Ahmed), who reveals his fear of subsistence living under warlords and his anger at his powerlessness, evokes empathy. To further point out how manipulated, how sad these Somalis are, Phillips questions why they are still “here” — pirates dressed in rags — when they brag about getting six million for their last hostage, spurring Muse to speak of his dreams of America.

While Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) prepare for his departure from Vermont and discuss their life and fears in the subtext of a ride to the airport, well-armed, militaristic overlords invaded a ramshackle pirate city on the Somali coast and threaten the frightened men, women, and children with violence if the men do not get out ot sea and bring in loot. Outgunned, they men choose crews and prepare a larger ship and two skiffs for the job. Meanwhile, Phillips reaches his ship and orders that all the unsecured anti-pirate devises be fixed. Greengrass quickly gets the agile, desperate pirates in pursuit of the large, clumsy container ship. Evoking the plight of the Merchant Marines in the early days of WWII, the ship’s crew has no weapons with which to protect themselves, and the pirates soon board the ship, and Muse proclaims himself captain. Phillips and the crew have their own plans and negotiate as they can, despite Muse’s warning not to play games.

As the film takes another turn, the pirates and Phillips leave in the enclosed orange lifeboat, and the tension inside the stuffy, claustrophobic space builds as Muse races to get the lifeboat the many miles home to his warlords. Phillips offers to bandage Muse’s injured hand, which isn’t as bad as Bilal’s (Barkhad Abdirahman) foot. Barely a teenager, Bilal reminds Phillips of his own son. As skipper, Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) grapples with the lifeboat’s poor handling , battering the occupants from side to side. Najee’s anger and fear increases as he realized that the arrival of the US Navy ships and the disappearance of their boss’s ship means they they are in real trouble; meanwhile, the pirates are all running out of the addictive leaves they all have been chewing since the beginning of their voyage. Repeating “It’s just business,” Muse maintains control, reassures Phillips, keeps Najee in check and Elmi driving, and worries about Bilal. The naturalism and authentic emotionalism of the actors playing the pirates makes their characters uncomfortably empathic while Hanks portrayal of Phillips, with its New England stoicism, means his character is emotionally neutral until his cathartic moment.

Barkhad Abdi holding his own in the frequent exchanges with Hanks shows both his natural acting talent and Hank’s generosity and talent as a consummate professional. Speaking both their native tongue and English, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali, all Somali-born American émigrés who answered an open casting call, show a startling range and combination of emotions. Intelligence, intensity, hunger, fear, and anger ooze in waves from these newcomers in debut performances. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s unambiguous use of both expansive and claustrophobic space, Christopher Rouse’s incisive editing, and composer Henry Jackman’s palpitating electronic score round the corners of the uncomfortable themes and roller coaster emotions, allowing the audience to get lost in the actions, conflicts, and irony of Greengrass’ vision. Based on Richard Phillips’ A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, Billy Ray’s tenacious screenplay pits Phillips against Muse, Muse against Najee, and the pirates against the US Navy while sustaining the emotion.

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, Captain Phillips runs 133 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use. The acting and the action hold the spotlight throughout the film, but the gray area themes of politics, commerce, oppression, luck, and irony linger after the film is over. Captain Phillips is in theaters now.

More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at



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