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"Captain Phillips" depicts ordeal of mariner held by Somali pirates at sea

Captain Phillips

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Muse: It was supposed to be easy. I take ship... ransom... nobody get hurt.
Captain Richard Phillips: You had thirty thousand dollars. And a way to Somalia. It wasn't enough?
Muse: I got bosses. They got rules.
Captain Richard Phillips: We all got bosses.

Barkhad Abdi earned various supporting actor nods for his role as Muse in "Captain Phillips
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

"Captain Phillips," directed by Paul Greengrass ("United 93"), is one of those based-on-a-true-story thrillers that keep a viewer’s attention even when the ending is not in doubt. Like Kathryn Bigelow’s how-they-got-Bin Laden film "Zero Dark Thirty" or Greengrass’ docudrama about the hijacked 9/11 plane that didn’t hit its intended target because its passengers resisted the terrorists, "Captain Phillips" is not a whodunit. Instead, it's a movie that answers the question “How did Phillips survive his ordeal?”

Starring Tom Hanks in the title role of Captain Richard Phillips, the 2013 film focuses on the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-flagged container ship captured by four Somali pirates in April of 2009, and the U.S. Navy’s efforts to capture the pirates and rescue a now-captive Phillips before they reach Somalia.

Angela Phillips: It’s gonna be okay, right?
Captain Richard Phillips: Oh, yeah. Gonna be okay.

The film begins with a prologue set in Underhill, Vermont. Merchant mariner Phillips is preparing for his latest gig: take command of the Maersk Alabama in a port in Oman and sail to Mombasa, Kenya, from the Gulf of Aden. This route will take the ship round the Horn of Africa and into the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean.

Phillips, who has over 20 years’ experience as a seaman, is well aware of the dangers, but keeps any concerns he has from his wife, Angela (Catherine Keener), as she drives him to the airport.

As Phillips travels to Salalah to board the Maersk Alabama, the film cuts away to the Somali coastal village of Eyl, a base of operations for one of the many pirate bands that prey on international shipping in the Indian Ocean. 28 years of anarchy, Islamic radicalization, and crushing poverty have transformed Somalia into a no-man’s land where clan warfare and piracy are the norm, not the exception.

In this short sequence, "Captain Phillips' shows how a ruthless pirate clan leader “hires” his all-too-willing brigands to go out to sea on skiffs supported by a “mother vessel” and “fish” for cargo-laden ships at sea. Their mission: take over a vessel, force its crew to sail to Eyl or another pirate base, and hold the ship and crew until the owners pay a multi-million dollar ransom.

Here, Greengrass introduces us to Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and three other pirates (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) who, along with another skiff crew, will attempt to capture the Maersk Alabama.

Their first attempt to do so fails when Captain Phillips uses a clever bit of bluff to scare the mother ship off. The pirates also lose one skiff when it’s swamped by the Maersk Alabama’s radical maneuvers and the ship’s defensive use of fire hoses.

Muse, however, is determined to capture the container ship. During the night, the young pirate and his three subordinates weld a metal ladder to the remaining skiff and pursue the Maersk Alabama.

With no naval escort nearby, the container ship is vulnerable to the determined Muse and his crew. They catch up to the Alabama the next day, and though they lose their skiff in the process, they board and seize it.

Unfortunately for Muse, Phillips has ordered everyone except a few of his bridge officers to hide deep in the ship’s hold. While the captain distracts the pirates on the bridge, Shane Murphy (Michael Chermus), Mike Perry (David Warshofsky) and other members of the crew disable the engines and hide. The Alabama seamen are unarmed but determined that the ship won’t go to Somalia; they wait for the Navy to come and rescue them.

My Take: Working from screenwriter Billy Ray’s adaptation of Phillips’ memoir "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea," director Greengrass gives viewers a thrilling combination of biopic, torn-from-the-headlines docudrama, and a true crime story.

Using the same you-are-there cinema verite approach he used in "United 93" seven years earlier, Greengrass made "Captain Phillips" in a real-life environment. With the cooperation of the Maersk Line, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shot the scenes set aboard the U.S. container ship on the Maersk Alexander, the Alabama’s sister ship. Every corridor, hatch, and instrumentation panel is authentic, although some fake buttons were added to the engine room’s control consoles to give the actors playing crew members something to “do” on screen.

The U.S. Navy also allowed the film crew to shoot key scenes aboard the USS Truxtun, an Aegis destroyer of the Arleigh Burke class that stands in for her sister ship, USS Bainbridge.

Greengrass filmed most of the scenes shot at sea off the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. The only major sequences shot in a Maltese studio were the ones set in a replica of the Maersk Alabama’s five-ton fiberglass lifeboat in which Muse and his accomplices hold Capt. Phillips hostage as they try to escape U.S. Navy warships.

Of course, any movie can be shot on location and ooze authenticity out of every pore, but it won’t work unless the performances match the technical adroitness of the director and the crew.

Muse: Last year I took a Greek ship. Six million dollars.
Captain Richard Phillips: Six million dollars? So what are you doing here?
Muse: Shut up, Irish. Too much talking.
Captain Richard Phillips: The problem is not me talking. The problem is you not listening.

Two-time Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks leads the cast of Captain Phillips. Like the late, great James Stewart, Hanks is a solid performer adept at playing “Everyman” roles by blending into the character in a way that seems real and unaffected. Hanks plays Richard Phillips as a laconic and world-weary seaman who doesn’t wax poetically about the sea or sailing. He is just a professional mariner with a job to do, not a John McLane-at-sea action hero who kicks ass a la Bruce Willis.

Hanks’ subdued performance makes a nice contrast to that of newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who plays the pirate leader Muse with slyness and a need to assert himself, especially when the caper to sail the Alabama to Somalia goes awry. Abdi, a 24-year-old Somali who now lives in the U.S., is a solid actor who can believably go head-to-head with Hanks’ phlegmatic Richard Phillips.

Want to see why this first-time actor has earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, for Best Supporting Actor? Watch Abdi’s Muse’s shifting moods as circumstances change, tensions rise and the pirates’ supply of khat (a plant that when chewed releases a powerful stimulant) runs out.

"Captain Phillips" also brings home several points about piracy. Piracy is not something worth emulating or admiring. It's an ancient criminal enterprise. Piracy is and will continue to be a problem as long as global trade depends on seaborne transportation. In addition, as Captain Phillips clearly shows, pirates do not resemble the kid-friendly versions from Treasure Island or the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. They are venal, ruthless, and violent criminals who often do the bidding of sophisticated mobsters from all over the world.

Blu-ray Edition Specifications

Format: AC-3, Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, Subtitled, Widescreen, Blu-ray, Digital, Ultraviolet, DVD-ROM
Language: English
Subtitles: English, French
Dubbed: French
Region: Region A/1
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Number of discs: 2
Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray/DVD Release Date: January 21, 2014
Run Time: 134 minutes