The trailer for "Captain Phillips" foregrounds the hijacking as the primary threat as the viewer witnesses something out of place: The pirates haven't eaten. But their frailty is the danger, their desperation an unpredictable force.
The film documents the event with this approach, as it unwinds with Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) lamenting the recession and the evolving economy in the drive to work with Catherine Keener, her only scene. All aboard departing from Oman, the film is spare, as everything is cargo jargon and by the book until the Maersk Alabama begins to wind into infested waters, when senior union members push back against Phillips. Titular Phillips uses the company card reminding them they signed a contract accepting the risk, simultaneously placing us from the pirates’ point of view. Their miscalculation is foreshadowed by the skiff they sputter up in: Rickety, dysfunctional, and futile, jostled by their prey’s wake, the enormity of their hopelessness.
The plot is led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), conciliatory, but again, desperately intent on proving his leadership to the fraction and home base, just like Phillips. Despite the parallels drawn, the film’s unique and worthy approach is dwarfed by liberties it takes with the actual history. Phillips commandeered the cargo ship within 240 miles of the Somali coast when there was a U.S. advisory to remain within 600 miles; and, the film never relayed that laws at the time restricted the crew from maintaining firearms on board. Thus, when Muse and gang board the ship it’s like watching a football team bullied by the marching band. Alabama’s only defense are giant Supersoakers as the pirates climb onto the gentle giant demanding a ransom of ten million dollars. Weaknesses are matched (guns versus hideouts) but all along you sense the Somalis’ inevitability. Once alone in the escape pod, Hanks continues to salve their erratic panic with his paternal approach as Muse vacillates between the kinship with Hanks and his smothering fate. We’re left with a blanched Phillips and a touching moment but it's not enough to be in the captain's chair.