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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Captain Phillips is an intense drama based on the true story of an American cargo ship that's hijacked by Somali pirates. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, the Bourne films) is known for his visceral depictions of action-packed violence, and Captain Phillips is a real nailbiter with extended scenes of suspense, menace, and violence. There is lots of blood, but just a few casualties -- none of them civilians -- but the camerawork makes the danger -- usually death threats facing a machine gun -- feel personal. Language includes a few uses of "s--t"; the Somalis often chew khat, a plant that's a stimulant; and characters smoke cigarettes as well.
What's the story?
Based on a true story, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS chronicles how the American cargo ship the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by pirates off the Somali coast in 2009. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) has been assigned a dangerous route to take the container ship to Mombasa, Kenya. After hearing an advisory warning mariners to stay away from the Somali coast, Phillips sees two dots on the radar screen, which he later confirms is two boats filled with Somali pirates. Although the ship manages to escape being overtaken the first day, the next day one speedboat reaches the Alabama, with four young Somali pirates ready to call the shipping company to ask for ransom. Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the pirates, insists they're not terrorists, just businessmen. A series of unexpected events leads the four pirates to flee on a lifeboat with Phillips as their hostage. Meanwhile, the US Navy plans a rescue attempt to keep the lifeboat from reaching Somalia.
Is it any good?
Some moviegoers may have trouble sitting through another of director Paul Greengrass' in-your-face thrillers, where every moment is fraught with anxiety and dread. But Greengrass is like Hitchcock or Spielberg; he's a gifted storyteller of this genre of movies so intense you bite your nails down to the quick and can't settle your heartbeat. The cinematography, the editing, the score -- it's all set up to make your flight or fight reflex work in overdrive, as you identify wholly with Hanks' middle-aged commanding officer, a man of honor who doesn't suffer fools and who is afraid but still willing to deal with four young pirates holding deadly weapons at his heart.
It's no surprise that Hanks is a master of the craft, so what's truly amazing is how good the young Somali actors are, particularly Abdi as the leader of the four pirates. He tells a rival that he might be skinny, but he's no coward, and his bravery, albeit misguided, is there -- in the way he's unwilling to let his bigger, angrier fellow kill any civilians, including Phillips, and the quiet, calm way he explains that he's a fisherman without fish, implying that this life of piracy is what his warlord bosses expect of him. Even if you know the outcome of this standoff between the pirates and the US Navy, the characters and the performances make Captain Phillips a must see for anyone who appreciates high intensity in their action dramas.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the movie's use of violence. Is the violence necessary to depict the true story? Could it have been less violent and still evoked the same intensity?
How does the filmmaker's use of camerawork and editing emphasize the sense of danger and violence?
What is the movie's message about the Somali pirates? Are they depicted purely as villains or as more complicated characters? Why do you think they do what they do?
- In theaters: October 11, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: January 21, 2014
- Cast: Barkhad Adbi, Catherine Keener, Tom Hanks
- Director: Paul Greengrass
- Studio: Columbia Pictures
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Pirates
- Character strengths: Courage
- Run time: 134 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use
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