You’re probably familiar with the news story that forms the basis of Hollywood’s latest torn-from-the-headlines thriller, “Captain Phillips”: A merchant marine ship is boarded by Somali pirates, the captain is taken hostage, and the U.S. Navy attempts a rescue with a crack-shot team of Navy SEALs. Like me, you may wonder if there’s a two-hour-plus movie in this material.
Rest assured, there is. Director Paul Greengrass pulls you in with his usual pulse-pounding intensity, and even if you know the ending, the film will keep you riveted as it builds to its tragic conclusion.
Tom Hanks stars as Capt. Richard Phillips, a New England seafarer tasked with piloting a cargo ship through the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia. He’s a tough boss who takes the threat seriously, prepping his less-concerned crew on how to react if they do encounter a skiff full of Jolly Rogers. Lacking any arms, they will have to defend themselves through ingenuity.
Greengrass also takes us through the other side of the story: We meet Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a professional pirate who is roused from his sleep by a “technical” full of gunmen who tell him, “The boss wants another ship, or you will answer for it.” He gathers his crew, basically a ragtag bunch of young men with AK-47s and little common sense. One is only 16, without even shoes to put on his feet, while another is a wild-eyed khat-chewing crazy. In a sense, Muse is also a captain, leading his own boatful of sailors who, however foolhardy, take enormous risks in boarding the massive cargo ship.
Greengrass takes us into an intense game of cat and mouse, as the pirates try to get onto the ship and take control, while Phillips and his crew keep improvising ways to resist and turn the tables. Greengrass and cameraman Barry Ackroyd use every nook of the ship and every possible camera angle to wring maximum tension out of the situation.
When the pirates try to flee in a cramped lifeboat with Phillips as their ticket home, the U.S. Navy sends ships and helicopters in pursuit. Phillips thinks he knows how this is going to end, and he tries to convince his captors to back down while they still can; Muse, however, feels he doesn’t have a choice, knowing what awaits him if he comes back empty-handed.
Hanks is great, balancing a hard-nosed determination with the increasing desperation of a man who realizes he may never see his family again; his final scene is cathartic, and has been rightly tipped for an Oscar. Abdi, however, is just as good: Like Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon,” he creates a criminal whose humanity seeps through just enough that the audience wishes he wasn’t making such a stupid decision.
The film is a straight-up thriller, a classic robbery gone wrong, but lurking around the edges are hints of the bigger picture, things like how economic imperialism has helped shape the problems in Somalia. But in a larger sense it shows, without commenting, how Africa’s disunity has left it weak. Muse’s men constantly argue and bicker, without even a shred of respect for his authority, and turn their guns on each other as much as on their hostages. This is contrasted with Western efficiency and hierarchy.
Above all, “Captain Phillips” shows how in a globalized world, normal working men — fishermen and sea captains, in this case — are swept up by forces beyond their control.