In April of 2009, the merchant trade ship Alabama was boarded by a small group of Somali pirates. Once on board, they attempted to overtake the crew and pilot the vessel themselves, however the crew of the Alabama and its Captain, Richard Phillips, thwarted their attempts which resulted in Phillips putting himself in harms way to save his crew and ship. What followed would become national news as Phillips himself was taken hostage by his Somali pirate invaders and held for ransom.
Director Paul Greengrass is no stranger to bringing frightening real world events to life on the big screen. His anti-war film Greenzone tackled the debacle of the WMD searches prior to 2003 invasion of Iraq and his film United 93 was a film of startling power and emotion that to this day stands as the one film to truly capture the horror we all experienced on September 11th, 2001. With a track record like that, it’s no surprise that his new film Captain Phillips once again pits him face to face with yet another story of extraordinary courage in the face of adversity. Read the full review after the break.
Most everyone already knows the finer details about what Captain Phillips was put through and the amazing (in the sense of miraculous) conclusion it came to, but just in case you are unaware and wish to remain in the dark, this review will contain as little spoilers as possible. However, there are certain things that must be discussed here in order to properly convey what a masterful job that both Greengrass and star Tom Hanks did at bringing Captain Phillips’ harrowing ordeal to the big screen.
It is impossible to talk about anything that transpires in the film without bringing up the ridiculous conditions that Phillips and all other merchant trade ship Captains must deal with every day while traversing waters that are known for their pirate activity. These ship crews don’t simply think it is a possibility that they might be rundown by pirates, they absolutely expect it. When Phillips first boards the Alabama, his immediate concerns are with safety from a pirate attack, something we usually snark at due to how silly it sounds, but in truth it is no laughing matter at all.
The threat is all too real and Greengrass sets the stage perfectly early on by showing us brief snippets of these Somali pirates and their crazed tribal tendencies that echoes the terror to come. From the get go, these pirates are shown to be ruthless, focused and slightly incompetent, which is not the most ideal mixture of traits. How the “Captain” picks out their crew is absolutely absurd (think of depression era groups of poverty stricken union workers looking for jobs outside a mill and you will have a good idea of what this looks like), and that absurdness carries into nearly all their actions.
The only thing that makes them even a threat is the fact that they are carrying automatic weapons with them and due to idiotic maritime law, the crews of these large merchant ships carrying countless tons of merchandise and aid relief materials are not allowed to even carry a single pistol on board to protect themselves (they must resort to shooting water out in hopes of thwarting the pirates’ ability to board the ship). This may seem like inconsequential stuff, but it is key to understanding why this was allowed, or better yet, HOW something like this could and did happen.
While Greengrass provides the perfect canvas for this battle of wits between these two Captains, it is the film’s two lead performances that will sell you on it. One from a known star who has proven his reliability in dramatic roles time and time again (and has two Best Actor Oscars to show for it) and the other from a complete unknown and unproven actor, both of whom turn in two of the bravest and most brutally understated performances of the year.
It should come no surprise to learn that Tom Hanks provides yet another tremendous performance as the intrepid Captain Phillips. It may seem like a walk in the park role for the veteran actor at first, but as the stakes quickly escalate for Phillips, so do his options begin to shrink and eventually we see him transformed from this confident leader into this fearful man who knows that he will likely no make it through this alive. Hanks captures perfectly the pain and anguish of a man literally being broken by his circumstances, but never takes it so far as to make Phillips appear as though all hope is lost. It's a marvelously nuanced performance that ranks as one of the actors best.
Then there is newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who plays the Somali pirate Captain Muse, who does some remarkable work for his first time in front of the camera. Greengrass gives you almost zero reasons to feel sympathy for these pirates, but through Abdi, we do see the soul of a man who represents an entire culture of people who have themselves been oppressed and manipulated into thinking this is the only way of life for them. It’s a finely tuned performance that never crosses the line or tries to make the pirates appear as the victims, but your feelings towards them won’t be as cut and dry as most would hope for when it is all said and done.
If you had to label the film with one major flaw, it would have to be during the methodical and highly predictable first half of the film. Technically that first half does what it should and likewise the actors do their jobs, but for some reason there is distinct lack of tension during the initial build up to that fateful trip aboard the lifeboat. Perhaps it is the long-winded nature of the build up (it takes a little while for the pirates to actually get aboard despite us knowing it WILL happen) or how long their stay aboard the ship actually is (it felt much longer than it actually was), but most likely it was that we already knew that Phillips is the one taken hostage, so there is little reason to elongate his capture.
If that first half of the film was all build up, then thankfully its second half comes through and delivers on that build up in spades. The scenes with Phillips aboard that lifeboat with these dangerously desperate pirates rates as some of the most enthralling, chilling and exhausting moments in any film all year. Phillips plays a dangerous game with his captors that eventually pays off, but you have to think that the man must have been out of his mind to do some of the things he does to manipulate them and their actions.
He is clearly the smartest person in the boat, but he is also dealing with four loose cannons who are backed into a corner with only him standing between them and a firing squad of Naval ships that are at their door every step of the way. The final moments of the film after the hostage situation are resolved are quite honestly the most riveting dramatic moments in the entire film and Hanks surprises once again when the actor must deliver a hauntingly chilling performance in regards to the aftermath of what all he went through.
Captain Richard Phillips is a man of great integrity whose selfless act to protect his ship and his crew may be considered his duty, but as this film clearly shows us, there is much more to him than just a man doing his job. Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks have done the man justice as well as all those who are terrorized every day by the constant threat of pirate attacks while trying to perform a simple job. Thanks to some magnificently intense and understated performances by both Hanks and Abdi, this is a film that should not be missed.