‘Captain Phillips’ is a gripping and intense film that dramatically details the real-life events that took place over six days in 2009 when Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama sought to avoid, but was eventually taken captive by, a gang of Somali Pirates.
Directed by Paul Greengrass (‘The Bourne Ultimatum’) and starring Tom Hanks as the eponymous Captain Phillips, the film begins quietly as Phillips prepares to leave from his home and wife in New England in order to helm a U.S. container ship around the Horn of Africa. It seems clear that Phillips loves his wife (a cameo as Andrea Phillips from the excellent Catherine Keener) but feels compelled to leave her to do his job well. Giving more background information on the film’s other major players, Greengrass also gives us a glimpse into the impoverished lives of the soon-to-be pirates, as they desperately vie in their ragged clothes to be chosen by Somali warlords to risk their lives for piracy (and implicitly promised fortune).
Soon, though, the viewer is taken away from the mundane and thrust into the well-known the events of 2009. The small band of armed Somalis target and doggedly pursue the U.S. container ship, which can only defend itself against the pirates with water cannons. The armed Somalis eventually make it onboard the ship and take it over, wanting “millions of dollars.” Led by the very intense, but gaunt, Muse (played impressively and menacingly by newcomer Barkhad Abdi), the relentless Somalis are not easily dissuaded or fully misdirected. Muse, intent on his big payout, and Phillips, focused solely on protecting his ship and his crew, play back-and-forth against each other. Finally, the ragged, but very dangerous, pirates decide to leave the Maersk on an enclosed lifeboat with only $30,000 from the ship’s safe but force Captain Phillips to go with them as a hostage, where the remaining details of the harrowing experience unfold.
Greengrass has again made a solid, consuming film, making real-life events that have been well-detailed in the media, seem almost new due to the intensity he has brought to his direction. With close-ups and his well-known shaky, hand-held camera use (in the style of cinéma vérité), the audience feels drawn into the action and viscerally placed on alert. However, the first-half of the film (the setup, the pursuit of the Maersk Alabama, and its invasion) seems to be a better match for this intensity than its the last-half (Phillips’ pained capture in the lifeboat with the pirates). It is this latter half which, at times, seems protracted. Although certainly realistic, it is difficult to watch Phillips’ misery and fear unfurl at pace much slower than is often shown. Nevertheless, Hanks has given his emotional entirety to his performance as Captain Phillips, flaunting the full extent of his dramatic acting chops in way not fully seen since ‘Cast Away’ in 2000. His performance is likely a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Additionally, Greengrass has gone further than just making a fiercely consuming film, he also has taken strides to partially humanize all the elements in this film, making it far from a simplistic ‘good guy-bad-guy’ retelling. We see the imperfections in the Captain by his ignoring email warnings about pirates, and we are further privy to his very personal, post-traumatic reactions after rescue. Similarly, we view the near-irremediable circumstances of the Somalis, who cling to dreams of rescue by pursuing a fortune they will never really own. And, moreover, we watch the Navy’s paced and considered (but ultimately definitive) engagement of the Somalis. These human elements add significant empathy and dimensionality to the Captain Phillips story, dramatically fleshing out much more than what had been revealed previously. ‘Captain Phillips’ is rated 4 of 5 stars (‘recommended’).
‘Captain Phillips’ is rated PG-13 for ‘sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.’
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