It takes genius film-making to put the audience on the edge of its seats when they know going in the movie’s outcome. “Captain Phillips” has this genius in spades. Directed by Paul Greengrass with screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, “Captain Phillips” is the true story of the 2009 high-jacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. With no special effects or tricks…just outstanding camera work and unbelievable, terrific acting…you will feel that you are right there with the Captain for the film’s 134 minutes running time.
The movie begins in Vermont as Phillips (Tom Hanks) gets ready to leave home for his next assignment—ironically enough, carrying food and other agricultural materials for the World Food Program in Africa—and then shifts to Somalia. There we watch the Somalis getting ready to choose who will go out in the two boats for their next pirating attempt. One can’t help but be affected by the differing backgrounds of the two settings.
Greengrass and Ray do an excellent job depicting what normal life is like onboard the Alabama as Phillips routinely goes about his duties. The Alabama is surprisingly (at least to me) the size of an office building, which lends credibility to the fact that the crew could stay hidden for as long as it did. Once the Somalis choose the Alabama to attack, the real action of the film begins. The Alabama does everything right, but because it is unarmed as merchant ships are, it is virtually helpless to piracy and this is one instance that its size works against it.
Time spent on board the Alabama is harrowing and much of it is a cat and mouse game between Phillips and the pirates. In addition to arms, what gives the Somalis an initial leg up is that they understand English, but the American crew does not understand Somali. Therefore, Phillips and his crew are never really sure what is going on until guns are put to their heads.
Once the action shifts to the lifeboat, the real heart of the movie takes place. By using extreme close-ups of the Captain and his captors, Greengrass does an absolutely fantastic job in making you feel how confined they all are. Without any special effects, the camera work makes you feel seasick and you can begin to believe the lifeboat’s insides closing in on you.
The acting in the film is absolutely outstanding. The pirates, unknown, first-time actors, are fabulous. Barkhad Abdi as the lead pirate, Muse, is astounding. He becomes charming, cunning, and fearsome within a matter of seconds. He portrays perfectly the desperation and feeling of nothing to lose that his character and fellow pirates have come to live by.
What can one say about Tom Hanks? His performance will hit you in the gut. He’s fabulous throughout, but his last five minutes are extremely hard to watch, they are so raw, and will stay with you for a long time. This is without a doubt the best work he has ever done and it’s breathtaking.
“Captain Phillips” shows what can be accomplished with a good story, excellent direction and utterly amazing acting. It’s everything film-making should be and a thousand times more.