CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (Paul Greengrass, 2013)
Based on the true story of a container ship hijacked by Somali pirates in April 2009, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS follows Tom Hanks as the title character as he strives to protect his crew and stay alive through the ordeal. Vermont-based Richard Phillips picks up the Maersk Alabama in a port in Oman and is en route to Kenya when he spots two boats he suspects are being driven by pirates. Although he is able to outrun them on the first attempt, another skiff returns the next day with four men who succeed in taking control of the cargo ship.
Their leader is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a reed of a man who makes a living ransoming ships and their crews for a local warlord. He promises that no harm will come to the men on the ship as long as everyone follows his orders. They just want to get paid. The captain does what he can to stall Muse and his team, but despite the best efforts of Phillips and his crew, the standoff ends with him in the lifeboat with the four pirates as their hostage. From there the race is on whether the U.S. Navy can intercept them and safely extract Phillips before the pirates reach Somalia’s coast.
Even with the foreknowledge that the hero is delivered from danger, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS plays out as an expert action thriller. Director Paul Greengrass’ filmography includes the process movies BLOODY SUNDAY and UNITED 93, which use documentary techniques to reveal how real-life events unfolded, and two installments in the BOURNE series. In CAPTAIN PHILLIPS he combines his skills for authentically recreating historical episodes and investing plot with the awe and breathless excitement of Hollywood suspense and action spectacles. Regardless of news accounts and Phillips’ book, these endeavors seem barely believable, yet Greengrass stages the hijacking and rescue as convincing evidence of military and technological might..
In his best performance in nearly a decade Hanks disappears into the role of a man thrust into an extraordinary survival situation. He plays Phillips as always being strategic yet not inhumanly clever considering the circumstances confronting him. Hanks showcases the character’s tactical flexibility as an extension of the attention to detail his job demands of him. In this situation he applies emotional aptitude with mechanical calculations. Hanks seals a terrific performance with a devastating final scene. His post-stress breakdown highlights his technical ability as an actor, but more impressively, his loss of control conveys the raw feeling triggered in this experience.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS screenwriter Billy Ray isn’t shy about drawing an equivalency between the American and Somalian captains to reflect on the world economy. By no means is the film an apologia for hijacking ships, but it asks viewers to consider the financial ecosystem that brings Phillips and Muse together. The pirate’s decisions are not justified, yet Muse is acting in accordance with the opportunities he has. Both men are offered jobs and accept them. One has the advantage of not needing to employ illegal and immoral means to scrape by, but with a shrinking globe, the two become more likely to cross paths.