Captain Phillips: A New Approach to the Pirate Tale


For those who don’t mind 134 minutes of nail-biting intensity, “Captain Phillips” is a must-see. Director Paul Greengrass shatters the stereotypical notions of pirates, advanced by movies such as “Pirates of the Caribbean”, by recounting the true story of a hijacking that occurred in 2009. Greengrass employs an unknown cast with the exception of the star, Tom Hanks, to convey the plot’s authenticity.

Grassland’s extraordinary directorial technique is applied as he introduces the Somalis in their destitute village; their despicable living conditions evoking unexpected sympathy from the audience. Muse, a malnourished looking young Somalian man who will be the captain of the next boat destined to overtake an American ship, begins to select his crew from a begging crowd, craving the only opportunity for the money that their village needs to survive.

The intensity increases as Grassland alternates between the American crew and the Somali crew, who are steadily gaining on the American cargo ship, piloted by Captain Phillips. The Somalis, intent on their target, are armed with powerful guns, while the Americans will have to rely on their ship’s only weapon:  firehoses.

The inevitable occurs when the Somalis overtake the ship by boarding it, bringing the two captains face-to-face. In a moment dramatic enough to make movie history, Muse demands that Phillips look at him, stating, “I’m the captain now.” Although there appears to be a power differential, the two characters are equally strong. Muse is armed and threatening, while Phillips is too cunning to be fully at his mercy.

This struggle progresses and Phillips momentarily seems to succeed as the pirates leave his ship in a lifeboat; however, as feared, they grab him and force him to join them, becoming their hostage. The remainder of the story is focused within the lifeboat. Grassland conveys the claustrophobic and unstable setting by using a hand-held camera, enabling the audience to experience the unsettling ocean waves and reinforcing the reality of the story.

Grassland develops a complex relationship between his characters, because despite the audience’s desperate desire for Phillips’ freedom, they cannot hate, perhaps cannot even dislike, the Somali pirates.

Phillips guides the audience in feeling compassion towards the pirates in several instances. First, he bandages the bleeding foot of the youngest pirate, whose face is not that of a menacing man, but a terrified boy. Next, although Phillips is still in the position of Muse’s victim, he addresses Muse as his equal, encouraging him to pursue a life of something better than piracy. Muse appears weak and pitiful as he answers, “Maybe in America,” and even discloses that he dreams of going there and buying an American car.

Despite this moment of civil equality between the two captains, Phillips accepts the unlikeliness that he will live. While the Somalis are distracted, Phillips scribbles a letter to his wife. For the first time in the film, Phillips’ strategic coolness leaves his face in a close-up on his tearing eyes. The next moment, a Somali rips the letter away. Phillips has a well-deserved breakdown of fury that leads to the story’s blood splattering climax, which is sure to keep your mind out at sea with this captivatingly worthwhile film.

Katie Merritt
Staff Writer / The Record
Katie Merritt is a staff-writer at The Record. She majors in Communication Studies at Raritan Valley Community College.