In 2009, Captain Richard Phillips and his crew of 20 began a routine transport job through international waters off the coast of Somalia. His ship, the Maersk Alabama is carrying valuable cargo and is soon the target of a crew of four armed Somali pirates, led by a young Somali named Muse. What follows is as tense a story as any you’ll see in film this year…
Captain Phillips is the latest film from director Paul Greengrass who’s certainly no stranger to presenting stories of both domestic and international tension having helmed two of the Jason Bourne films (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum), Bloody Sunday, and one of my personal favorites, United 93. Greengrass is back in fine form with Captain Phillips, a film that works as both an edge-of-your-seat thriller as well as a complicated picture of the various effects of globalization. Obviously this is based around true events, but having not read the book from which it’s adapted (Richard Phillips’ and Stephen Talty’s “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea”), I’m really not for sure how much here is totally accurate, though it certainly feels that nothing’s been let to question. Regardless of it’s accuracy, it’s still as good as a thriller of this sorts gets and is bound to stir conversation after viewing (or at least it certainly did with the group I saw it with).
Technically, well this is terrific filmmaking and certainly right in line with the other movies on Greengrass’ resumé. Greengrass’ use of handheld cameras is certainly evident and while their effect normally doesn’t bother me, for one scene here, I did have some slight issue. This scene involved the introduction of Muse and his crew. Basically the action and camera works is pretty swift here, the Somalis are speaking in their native tongue and subtitles are trying to keep up with the conversation. Because these actors aren’t really known to us, Greengrass’ handheld camera work makes it a little difficult to get a bead on who’s saying what, though eventually we do get past that. That’s my only complaint with the film and I’d categorize that in the “extremely moot” column when it comes to total enjoyment of Captain Philips.
One thing that came to mind to me while watching this was thinking about how a fictionalized version of these same events would be handled in another movie. A fictionalized version would call for the pirates to make their way aboard this ship and they’d manage it with some theatrical results. Here, the attention to real world detail certainly made me think about it in a different way- with the Somalis having to fight their way through violent waves from the wake of the Maersk Alabama and then just having to combat the high-pressure hoses that the ship uses for it’s defense. In addition, it’s certainly easy to think of the Somalis as the “bad guys” of this piece and yet there is a complexity to them, particularly with Muse who’s both filled with pride and yet a total result of the circumstances that he lives under. Yes, they are criminals and we want them to get what’s coming to them in the end, but still you can’t help but feel empathic to their situation.
Tom Hanks plays the titular part and this is right up there with the very best of Hanks’ past work and will certainly remind one that he’s still one of the finest of American actors. There’s nothing that’s theatrical about this performance, it’s a very lived-in part with Hanks playing this guy who was basically just going out to do his job. There’s certainly heroism on his part though again, it’s the type of heroism that you’d see in the real world and certainly way more relatable. Where Hanks really gets you though is in the film’s climactic scenes where he’s not only triumphant from what has just happened, but also extremely vulnerable. It’s very effective work on Hanks’ part and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see him at least get an Oscar nomination for this part.
I’ve also got to call out the work of Barkhad Abdi (Muse), Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali as the Somali pirates. From what I can tell, they’re all making their debuts with this movie and certainly holding their own with Tom Hanks. Abdi in particular plays this part as almost a counterpoint to Hanks as just another guy who’s going out to do his job, though he’s looking at this as his chance to get some respect from his leaders. There’s a real sense of inevitability to Muse, and yet his own pride has him always being assured.
Much like last week’s Gravity I have to close with this urging- don’t miss this! Captain Phillips is a totally engrossing thriller that just feels totally authentic. Both director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks are at the top of their respective games here and though the outcome of this is already known, they certainly still make the ride getting to the end as compelling as can be. Highly, highly recommended.