The film may be called Captain Phillips – and deservingly so, Phillips is the hero (and played by Tom Hanks in the movie, so that helps) – but the story itself is actually about two very different captains on opposing sides of the same desperate situation.
From the start, the film follows both captains dutifully as they prepare for their respective voyages. Richard Phillips – a slightly heavier, salt-and-pepper-goateed Hanks – is taken to the airport by his wife (an all too brief Catherine Keener), he then meets with the crew, inspects the ship for safety, and ultimately settles in for a long voyage off the eastern coast of Africa.
Muse – the gaunt, perpetually sweaty, yet terrifying Somali pirate captain – is awoken in his village. He grabs his AK-47 and heads down to the water to select his crew from the dozens of men looking for a big payday. Once chosen, the tiny skiffs – packed with 4 men each – set off for the open waters.
After the brief setup, some ominous foreshadowing, and a thwarted attempt, Muse and his three cohorts – armed with machine guns – storm the Maersk Alabama. After a frantic showdown, Muse, seemingly in control, declares to Phillips: “I’m the captain now,” as they take command of the ship.
But as the film progresses, Muse and his fellow pirates find themselves more and more over their heads with not only the hostage situation, but U.S. Navy too. As the situation slips further out of his control, Muse repeats, mostly to Phillips, but also to himself, “It was supposed to be easy . . . I am just a fisherman.”
This duality is a unique aspect for a “based on real events” thriller like this, but one director Paul Greengrass similarly used in United 93 several years ago. It is not so much that we agree or even sympathize with Muse and his fellow pirates, but at least we can see where they are coming from. They are humanized, rather than stereotypes. It is through this that film brings in a modest, but unexpected global perspective regarding the economy, military, and violence. These are men in a terrible situation, but in trying to do something about it, they end up only making it worse for themselves.
Muse and the pirates are not given a tremendous amount of backstory beyond a few standard characters traits (the wild card, the sensitive young one, etc.), but their internal struggle is. Throughout the film – as they bicker with one another, adapt on-the-fly, escalate the situation, and eventually, begin to question their actions – they become more well-rounded villains than movies like this are used to portraying. Biting off much more than they can chew and without a real plan, the pirates are all but doomed from the very start. The only question that still remains, and from where Greengrass draws all the tension from is, how far will they take it?
This true life story is tailor-made for Hollywood. The film is based on the real 2009 incident and on Phillips’ subsequent harrowing memoir. This type of pressure-cooker thriller is the bread-and-butter for Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, two Bourne films) – and not many filmmakers do it better than him. His visceral, realistic approach, captured by longtime cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93, Green Zone, and also Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker), is perfect for the film. Greengrass’ trademark documentary-style, fast-paced action, and anxiety-driven emotion are on full display here – especially during the intense and claustrophobic third act aboard the crowded, submarine-like lifeboat à la Wolfgang Peterson’s epic Das Boot.
The action is heart-pounding and terrific, as expected, but the acting is also top notch. Hanks, as the blue collar and ever resourceful Phillips, delivers his best performance in years, especially during the final third (which is not totally surprising given who he is). But Barkhad Abdi, a first time actor and actual Somali refugee, also turns a great performance as Muse, bringing the much needed authenticity and intensity required of the role.
The back-and-forth between the two characters is a key element of the film. And it is an interesting juxtaposition to see how they handle not only the situation, but also their respective ships, crews, and demanding bosses. These two captains might have more in common than you think. They were just brought to their current situation under vastly differing circumstances.
Pulse-pounding throughout, Captain Phillips – though fairly standard thriller material – is elevated by Greengrass’ tight direction and the two central performances. It is a truly captivating film that packs a punch in both intensity and emotion (without getting too sentimental).
* * * * out of 5 stars
Captain Phillips opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, October 11 and locally at The Theatres at Canal Place and all three AMC Palaces (Clearview, Elmwood, and Westbank).
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