There are some rough jobs out there. Captain Phillips makes it abundantly clear: sailing a cargo ship unarmed in pirate-infested waters off the coast of Africa sure as hell tops that list.
By now, everyone has heard the story of the Somali Pirates and the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. But if your recollection of 2009 is hazy amid the election of our first African American President, the untimely passing of the King of Pop, and keeping track of Tiger Woods’ mistresses, allow me to refresh your memory. On April 8th, 2009, the first successful hijacking of a US cargo ship since the early 19th century occurred a few hundred miles off the coast of Somalia. The pirates took control of the ship and made off in a lifeboat with a hostage, Captain Rick Phillips (Tom Hanks). Over the course of the following 4 days, a tense standoff ensued.The story is harrowing in and of itself (even if you know the ending), but that’s certainly not the only reason to check out Captain Phillips. Paul Greengrass is as good an action director as there is in Hollywood today. His ability to deliver breath-taking action at a breakneck pace without disparaging the gravity of very real events is unparalleled (see United 93). Even at 134 minutes, Greengrass pares down the set-up of Captain Phillips to the bare essentials, getting the action underway with urgency and never letting up. He expertly illustrates how unprepared the crew was and how easily the pirates were able to take over the ship without beating his audience over the head with it. It strikes the perfect balance of informing the unaware without boring those familiar with the story.
What is surprising, though, is the amount of care Captain Phillips takes in presenting the pirates. They’re scared, desperate, starving adolescents who are merely attempting to win the favor of the Somali warlord wreaking terror on their villages so their families can live one more day. It’s a powerful commentary on globalization that is prevalent throughout the film without feeling preachy.
Of course, Tom Hanks is brilliant and disappears into the part of Rick Phillips. In fact, some will argue that this isn’t as demonstrative of the actor’s range as his other films, but I submit that this role is just as difficult to pull off as say, Hanks’ performance in Castaway. Though the dialogue between the Captain and the insurgents clearly conveys compliance and submission, Hanks deftly clues in his American counterparts (and the audience) as to his true intentions with the dart of an eye, as a man who is fearful for his life and those of his crew and doing everything he can to outwit his captors without alerting them. Tom Hanks is masterful at his craft, and his performance here, especially as the film nears its ending, is more evidence of that. Equally as impressive is the leader of the pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a complicated young man who understands that while Phillips is not his enemy, he has come too far to turn back now. He is an interesting foil for Hanks and adds a degree of empathy to the proceedings.
Captain Phillips is yet another riveting true story put to celluloid by Paul Greengrass. Even at a runtime of two-plus hours, the film is focused, fast-paced, and the performances are captivating. See it!