Captain Phillips Review: Subverting the Male Action Hero

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is a true story about bravery, courage, and survival, but don’t let that fool you–this isn’t your typical action thriller. Whereas most Hollywood action films showcase the physical masculinity of hard-bodied stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis, Captain Phillips is more psychological, forcing the audience to confront the lasting effects of violence.

The film tells the true story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama. Paul Greengrass and his team of collaborators expertly recreate the harrowing ordeal Phillips endures while simultaneously honoring the humanity of the Somali pirates who take Phillips hostage. Captain Phillips is a challenging, complex film because it doesn’t offer any easy answers. The Somali pirates, led by their captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi), are depicted as the villains of the film, but the filmmakers don’t strip them of their dignity. As an audience, we don’t agree with their actions, and our sympathies ultimately lie with Phillips, but we always understand where the pirates are coming from, and at times, the film provocatively suggests that their perspective is justified given their circumstances.

Captain Phillips gives us a lot to discuss, from the technical mastery to the unrelenting tension to the humanization of the pirates, but the most impressive aspect of the film for me is Tom Hanks’ powerful performance as Phillips. Lately, Hanks hasn’t been given the chance to shine in a leading role, and his work in Captain Phillips proves once again that he is one of Hollywood’s best actors. There is so much emotion that Hanks conveys with his eyes, and much of his performance is indeed silent and reactionary, as he simply observes the chaos around him while always managing to keep calm on the surface.

That is, until we reach the final ten minutes of the film, which in many ways shatter and subvert traditional conceptions Hollywood has often had of heroism and masculinity. The film gives the audience its survival story, but it is void of the kind of celebratory spirit that surrounds action films such as First Blood (1985) or Die Hard (1988). The film’s greatest strength is its ability to show the repercussions of violence. Phillips may have survived the ordeal, but what he went through was horrific, and the final scene of the film, anchored by Hanks’ brilliance, suggests that the only genuine reaction to such horrors is to fall apart.

In many ways, the ending of Captain Phillips is reminiscent of Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Kathryn Bigelow’s overlooked masterpiece about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Both films are based on true stories, and both films attempt to honor the heroism and bravery of Americans who fight for the freedom of others. However, Zero Dark Thirty challenges conceptions of heroism by suggesting that the manhunt doesn’t really end with the capturing of a body. After Maya (Jessica Chastain) completes her mission and Bin Laden is dead, she is left emotionless. What was the point of it all? Why isn’t she satisfied? Why isn’t everything healed with the death of this one man?

Bigelow’s film received a lot of controversy, thereby causing audiences and awards groups to push it aside for more digestible fair like Argo (2012). However, it remains to this date one of the most significant films to call attention to the irrevocable effects of violence and the limitations of revenge as a sort of remedy.

Captain Phillips is obviously dealing with different subject matter, and in many ways it is a more audience-friendly film than Zero Dark Thirty, but the final ten minutes finds Greengrass similarly subverting ideas of heroism and masculinity as Phillips falls apart in front of the men and women who save his life.

Phillips fought back to the bitter end, the film shows, and the Somali pirates end up being captured by the Navy SEALS or dead. So why isn’t he happy? Why doesn’t he cheer at the end of the film like Rambo might at the end of First Blood? What is it about Captain Phillips that separates it from other action films, and what is it about Hanks’ portrayal of Phillips that subverts the male action hero?

It appears that it is the willingness to display vulnerability, to admit fear, and to accept and come to terms with the moral ambiguity of the situation. Ultimately, Captain Phillips reminds us that “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” don’t exist. There are events that unfold in real time, and real people who try to make sense of them. Throughout much of the film, Phillips focuses on surviving, and it isn’t until after he survives in the final scene when he is able to make sense of his experience.

The man is still alive, but something inside of him has died. The film doesn’t tell us exactly what it is, but Hanks, in the finest moment of his acting career, brings us one step closer to understanding. Like Phillips, I’m still recovering.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I felt many characters in this movie lacked depth, particularly the pirates. But the documentary-like approach to the material, and the sensational performance from Tom Hanks, made this film an intense cinematic experience.

  2. Marshall Howell

    Tom Hanks has deceivingly received awards for his acting chops in the past but the 3rd act of this movie might very well be the finest performance he has ever put on screen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Oscar comes knocking again.

  3. Can’t wait to watch this. I’ve been reading the reviews and they are all good. Surprised at how many great movies we have had this year (Gravity!)

  4. Aliya Gulamani
    Aliya Gulamani

    I have heard many great things about this film and am excited to see it. Nice to hear Hanks in a superb role that showcases his acting ability. Nice review -and you offering a refreshing, alternative view to Zero Dark Thirty.

  5. Jennifer Carr

    Great review. It always annoys me that in mainstream movies, there’s always a fear of showing vulnerability in characters, especially the menfolk. Vulnerability helps achieve audience sympathy much more than invulnerability. I think this film is probably much more realistic for embracing that aspect. Can’t wait to check it out.

  6. Brett Siegel

    Very well put. I completely agree that the ending is the finest moment of Hanks’ career. It’s such an edge-of-your-seat thriller that we’re not given much of an opportunity to come up for air. When Phillips is finally rescued, we’re expecting some kind of catharsis or emotional release, but Hanks doesn’t give it to us. His reaction is as intense as the two hours leading up to it. We know he’s safe but we still can’t come up for air.

  7. Kevin Licht

    I was really happy with the Hanks performance here. It seems like forever (not counting Toy Story 3) since he’s been in a movie this good. The last movie he particularly did anything special for was probably Cast Away. Not sure if it’s his best overall performance but that end scene is going to earn him some Oscar consideration.

    I think what also helped Hanks’ overall performance in Captain Philips was him being surrounded by relatively unknown supporting actors. There wasn’t a lot in this movie that could take an audience out of the film.

  8. In the wake of Oscar nominations and the snub of Hanks for a leading Male role, I would agree that there has been an injustice done against a role Hanks may never better. However when comparing the movie to Zero Dark Thirty, specifically that both were not “digestible” to American audiences and thus receive less acclaim, I would point to films like Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, and Her as being equally difficult to digest, yet included in the categories for Best Picture, Actor, etc. The American audience is slowly coming around to more nuanced and difficult narratives and characters, finding the ability to digest being strengthened by the quality of the meals it is given.

  9. “Ultimately, Captain Phillips reminds us that “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” don’t exist.”

    I think that would be pushing things a bit too far. Saying morality can be nuanced—even heavily so—I think is far more tenable.

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