Captain Phillips is an edge of your seat thriller that takes a true story and makes it unforgettable. Paul Greengrass (Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) uses his frenetic hand-held approach to ratchet up the tension and delivers a breathless account of the Maersk Alabama’s hostage situation by Somali pirates in 2009. Tom Hanks plays the titular captain and once again proves that when he wants to, he is one the greatest actors to ever live.
The story is taken from the true life incident in 2009 where an unarmed shipping boat was taken hostage by four Somali’s. As the situation elevated the Somali’s escaped on a lifeboat and took Captain Phillips prisoner to use as a bargaining tool. The story made international headlines as the US Navy interceded. While this was an international incident there is the possibility of someone not knowing about the event so I will leave the plot synopsis there to reduce the spoilers.
Paul Greengrass has created an often imitated style that employs fast cuts, hand-held cameras, and ADHD pacing. The true benefit in this film is how that style lends itself to feel like a documentary. Greengrass puts the audience on the boat with the crew, and in some cases with the pirates. There is more tension as the pirates search the boat because it feels as if they could turn around and spot us looking in on the affairs. Greengrass’s shrewdest move may have been in highlighting the life of the Somali pirates. He shows us where they come from and gives them motivation that may have been overlooked. We’re not meant to feel sympathy exactly, but we are meant to understand that this isn’t simple evil. This choice is what allows the last act to get as claustrophobic and tense as it does. Both sides are right and wrong at the same time.
Tom Hanks is stunning in this role. At the onset of the film he appears as a normal family man and boss. Hanks shrugs off any movie star posturing to portray an everyday guy that loves his family, does the best job he can do, and leads his crew the best way he can even if the crew doesn’t always like it. As the hostage situation elevates Hanks makes calm, but normal choices and makes the character feel real. The last few minutes of the movie show Hanks at his most unforgettable and it may be the single greatest acting scene of his career.
Barkhad Abdi play the lead pirate Muse (pronounced Moo say.) This is his first film role and he stands up to Tom Hanks and is able to hold his own throughout the film. He brings a pathos to the character and manages to bring across complicated emotions to show that his motivations are nuanced and layered. This is a stellar debut performance and there can be great things in his future.
Captain Phillips is about the 2009 hostage incident, but it is also about so much more. There are geopolitical and economical undertones throughout the film. Captain Phillips begins the film by talking about how he’s worrying about the future for his kids and how the job landscape just isn’t the same as it used to be. Meanwhile, Muse and his fellow villagers are being told that if they don’t successfully hijack a boat and make some money they are going to be killed. Everyone is subject to stress and worry, but there are different degrees of it for those of us entrenched in western privilege. Greengrass doesn’t sledgehammer in his points, but he lets the material speak for itself. For example, when the four pirates with their four guns open the door to their lifeboat to see the might of a full US Naval warship we should be reminded of the Roman Empire and their tendency to crush all those oppose them no matter the reason. Much is made throughout the film that the people on that boat matter less than looking bad in international headlines. Captain Phillips is a well crafted film and an edge of the seat thriller but it is so much more for those with the eyes to see.