Given our national state of despair while in the throes of the Great Recession, the U.S. military’s decisive actions and rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from a small band of Somali pirates in 2009 was more than a cause for celebration.
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It was a moment of intense national pride that, in a time when everything was going wrong, offered us the temporary respite of something finally going right.
Less than five years later, director Paul Greengrass offers a cinematic chronicle of that recent history with Captain Phillips, an exceptional and harrowing account of the ordeal, based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea co-written by Phillips and adapted to film by Billy Ray (2005’s Flightplan, 2009’s State of Play).
Despite the singular reference in the title, Captain Phillips is the story of two men in charge.
Phillips is a veteran merchant mariner in charge of the Maersk Alabama, a large cargo freighter carrying relief supplies for Somalia and Kenya and traveling along the increasingly hostile Somalia Gulf of Aden. He’s the archetypal by-the-book leader, who leads his crew in drills to prepare them for almost any danger, including pirates.
He’s also brave enough to turn himself over as hostage to the frustrated pirates so that his ship and crew can go free.
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Screenplay by Billy Ray and Richard Phillips, based on the book.
A Sony Pictures release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, and Mall Cinema.
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and substance use.
Running time: 134 minutes.
Critic’s Rating ★★★★★
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★ Very Good; ★★★ Good; ★★ Fair; ★ Poor
Phillips is played by Tom Hanks in an absorbing performance so natural it appears unfairly effortless through most of the film, until the stoic captain begins to break down from his hellish ordeal. It's a scene that resonates with truth.
Muse is the teenage leader of a quartet of Somalis recruited by a warlord — often at gunpoint — to hijack ships off the Somali coast. Despite his youth and gangly build, Muse is intelligent beyond his years and quietly fierce; quickly dispatching a rival who questions his leadership. He's also stubborn in his determination to receive millions in ransom for Phillips — passing up a $30,000 cash offer from Phillips to end the hijacking — even though he's likely to see little of the money himself.
Barkhad Abdi plays Muse in a dazzling debut that asserts the newcomer as an early front-runner for Best Supporting Actor and as an actor who, given the proper roles, with the necessary raw talent to fuel a lengthy career.
The cast of the Phillips and pirate crew are uniformly excellent and authentic as men of equal desperation willing to go to great lengths to achieve even the smallest of victories. After the Alabama's hijacking, the film shifts into a battle of wills between the unarmed ship's crew and the well-armed pirates.
Captain Phillips doesn't easily court our nationalistic favor, either, but offers real-world motivations behind the once-unthinkable act of hijacking a U.S. ship. Are we made to like the pirates? No. Nor are we made to outright hate them. We are made to understand them and empathize with the lack of choice and opportunity in their lives.
Greengrass' fondness of the shaky cam has never been put to such good use, with the focus tight on the emotions of faces and body language, drawing us into the grim hostage drama. He also delivers a tight thriller without a wasted or excessive moment.
Honed to nail-biting perfection, Captain Phillips is the director's best and most literate work, a culmination of his two Jason Bourne film's action techniques and United 93's ability to relate recent U.S. history as something other than jingoism. Rather than delivering simpleminded pro-United States propaganda, the British filmmaker is keenly aware that not all villains dress in black and exist in a bubble of evil. Some are simply products of a harsh, unfair life that dictates desperate acts of violence in exchange for life itself.
That Muse does not wish the hijacking to result in bloodshed is made clear; Phillips is of monetary value only if kept alive. With the pirates and Phillips aboard a lifeboat they took from the ship, they are motoring back to Somali, where they hope to play out the ransom demand in their financial favor.
This won't happen, of course. The U.S. Navy shows up and Phillips assures Muse he cannot win. But the pirate captain and his crew are far too invested in their plans to give up at this point. And thus the great tragedy of the third act: We know how this plays out and by the looks of everyone aboard the boat, they know it as well.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.