CaptainPhillipscoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  No
2013, 134 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and substance abuse
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C+

Family Home Theater has the tagline “stuff your kids can see,” and to that end I review films that are rated PG-13 or under. Not all PG-13 films are candidates for family viewing, and Captain Phillips is borderline. I’d say that children have to be at LEAST 13 to watch this taut thriller about a small band of Somali pirates who, in 2009, became the first to hijack a U.S. ship in 200 years. The nature of the film will make it more appealing to teenage boys than to teenage girls.

For all but 10 minutes, Captain Phillips plays like a thriller in the tradition of such siege pictures as Air Force One and Panic Room. For all but 10 minutes, menace, not violence, creates a tension that holds you in its grip until the final outcome. But there are, in fact, a few brief bloody moments, and the fact that the film is based on a true story makes those moments seem more intense. So does an ending that changes the whole feel of the film and appears largely designed to give Tom Hanks an Oscar moment by pushing his emotional range.

After a slow and contrived opening sequence that shows Phillips with his wife before she drops him off at the airport, where he’ll fly to Oman to take command of the container freighter Maersk Alabama and guide it through pirate waters off the Somali coast, the narrative almost shapes itself once Phillips gets onboard. You may have heard that crew members objected to the film because, in their words, Phillips “wasn’t that brave,” but this is Hollywood and one expects a degree of exaggeration in order to craft a more effective and powerful film.  

CaptainPhillipsscreenAlmost from the beginning it’s structured like a chess match between Phillips and a Somali pirate (Barkhad Abdi as Abduwali Muse) who feels pressured to make a big score, not only for his bosses, but because he’s called “Skinny” and doesn’t get the respect he thinks he deserves. He’s a match held too close to explosives, and you don’t know when or if he’s going to go off. Same with one of the other pirates he recruited.

Only four pirates with automatic weapons board the Maersk Alabama, but you can see that merchant ships are ill-equipped to deal even with that small a force. Survival depends on a battle of wits, and everything Phillips does from the moment the pirates board is an act of deliberate calculation in an attempt to keep them from killing any of his crew or taking hostages. Though there wasn’t as much action as there could have been, there was plenty of tension, and that was enough to keep my teenage son watching with me. And he agreed that it was a way better-than-average film.

Filmmakers reportedly studied the bullet-riddled lifeboat that held the pirates and Captain Phillips for a time, and paid close attention to both exterior and interior detail. And they filmed aboard a container ship that could have been a twin to the Maersk Alabama. The result is a film that feels as authentic as can be—crew members’ comments notwithstanding.