“Captain Phillips” is the latest in a trend of documentary realist films adapting recent dramatic news stories like “United 93” (also directed by Greengrass) and “Zero Dark Thirty”. It recounts the story of one of our American freighters getting attacked by a small band of Somali pirates in 2009. They fail to take the freighter and opt for taking the captain for ransom in a life boat instead.
Director Paul Greengrass shoots the entire movie using documentary style camera work and angles, employing frequent use of handheld cameras and untrained actors. It puts you right in the action and makes the movie incredibly thrilling and suspenseful, regardless of whether or not you know the outcome (though it was a big news story, so you should know how it turned out). It’s filmed using real boats on the ocean, giving a realism that’s far more convincing than anything we can do with CGI.
Adding to the realism is the incredible acting from the main cast, Tom Hanks and the four pirates in particular. Tom Hanks pushes out the New England accent as Captain Richard Phillips, but it feels very natural after the opening scenes. He goes through the ringer in this and despite how understated his performance is, the constant fear of death as he’s taken hostage is clear in his every nuanced emotion. Perhaps because of his star power, it’s easy to sympathize with him early on (he’s the ultimate every man), and his ordeal becomes quite emotional by the end. He displays incredible range and naturalism, making it one of his best performances in recent memory.
Though Hanks is the title character, Barkhad Abdi (who plays the pirate captain Muse) demands certain attention. He’s incredibly naturalistic and it’s all too easy to forget he’s an actor (though he and the other pirates are first time actors). There’s a certain degree of sympathy for him, because this is not something he has any love of doing. It’s a story of clashing cultures and world views, and he’s forced into a life of piracy with no other chance to earn a living. Unlike his comrades, he seems more aware of the risks, the danger, and the hopelessness of their situation. It’s a complex villain, and you can see there’s a lot going on with him during the intense sequences.
It all goes into selling the story as believable and makes it that much more exciting. The hijacking and the later scenes with Phillips and Muse in the life boat are the most intense and nerve-wracking, especially once the Navy and the SEALS enter into the equation.
What’s refreshing to see is that despite the Somali pirates being the “villains” of this story, they’re not presented in a black and white light. These pirates come from extreme poverty and are herded literally at gun point into their little boats so they can steal from these massive ships. They have no real choice in the matter, and when things get out of hand (and they do almost immediately), its nothing but desperation that fuels them. They’re unprepared, undermanned, and incapable of fighting a real threat. They have no chance in hell against the US Navy, represented by these gigantic warships against their tiny life boat, and I think they know it, but by then it’s too late to turn back. This clashing of worlds is obvious even to Phillips, who knows it’s only a matter of time before they’re all killed by the military.
“Captain Phillips” is another stand out nonfiction action film, bringing this real life news story to life in a way that feels as real as it possibly can. With Greengrass’s style, it’s a smart and fast paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.