Intimate pirate thriller hits the high seas like a runaway typhoon
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Tom Hanks is so damn likable that sometimes you just don’t want to like him. The urge is to push back against his unflagging charm and midwestern good looks. Cynical filmgoers keep looking for a chink in his armor, an excuse to dismiss him as a charlatan or a flash in the pan. But the guy just keeps delivering. Of course he’s got that effortless, James Stewart everyman quality in comedies and romantic roles. But we forget every once in a while what a terrifically good dramatic actor he really is. Nowhere are these qualities more evident than in his latest serving of Oscar bait, the impossibly tense maritime thriller Captain Phillips.
The film is inspired by the harrowing true story of Captain Richard Phillips who, in 2009, found himself and the crew of his cargo ship hijacked by a small band of Somali pirates—the first act of piracy on an American vessel in 200 years. It was Phillips’ story that brought the vivid reality of modern-day piracy to life for news watchers around the world. The film’s taut, no-frills script is based on Phillips’ own account, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea. There are, of course, differing versions of the incident at the center of this story. Phillips’ crewmates are reportedly less than happy with the film’s rather myopic concentration on their captain. And there’s certainly a much larger issue to be addressed as to why international shipping companies would leave cargo ships so dangerously unprotected while sailing though the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. (Presumably insurance premiums cost less than full-time security teams.) But those are questions for another day and another narrative. Captain Phillips is secure in the story that it’s telling—and it’s a whopper of a yarn.
Hanks is our man Captain Phillips, a humble, by-the-book ship’s captain who takes his job sailing cargo around the Horn of Africa quite seriously. Wary but undeterred by warnings of piracy, Phillips leads his ship, the Maersk Alabama, through dangerous waters. He runs his crew through disaster drills and keeps a close watch on the radar. In a sort of parallel storyline, Captain Phillips takes us into Somalia and introduces us to determined fisherman-turned-pirate Muse (plucked out of nowhere first-time actor Barkhad Abdi). With no solid government, zero job prospects and the constant threat of armed warlords hanging over their heads, many Somali men and boys have given in to the easy lure of piracy. Muse is no exception, and the film puts these two men of the sea on a dangerous collision course.
Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) is perfectly chosen for the task of piloting this project. His background as a director of A-list thrillers is well established. But he lends an air of fly-on-the-wall authenticity to this true-life tale. In the Bourne films, Greengrass tended to rely on handheld camerawork. He continues the technique here, trading a bit of the shaky-cam, action-movie intensity for a more stable, documentary style. The results are brilliant. The handheld camerawork has the feeling of spontaneity. Instead of filming carefully composed, pre-planned shots, it feels like the camera crew is struggling to capture actual events unfolding rapidly in front of the camera lens. That sense of immediate realism suffuses the entire film with urgency and unexpected danger.
Hanks is simply terrific as the quietly heroic captain, struggling to figure out a way to stop the pirates and protect his crew from harm. He acts here with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of feeling. Many scenes find Hanks cowering quietly under threat of execution. It’s to the man’s credit that he’s able to communicate a whole range of frantic emotions without uttering a peep. The film’s post-climax wind-down is just devastating. The majority of conversations Phillips does have are with the de facto pirate leader, Muse. Their improvised game of brinkmanship forms the sweaty backbone of the film.
With no previous acting experience, Barkhad Abdi’s work here is instinctual and deeply affecting. He’s a dangerous, desperate man. But he believes himself to be a businessman. This isn’t about religion or revenge. It’s about economics. Shipping companies will pay handsomely for the return of multimillion dollar vessels and kidnapped crew. But things don’t go as planned—for anyone—resulting in countless, panic-stricken life-or-death moments. And then the SEALs show up.
Captain Phillips is no dryly admirable character study. It’s a cold sweat-inducing thriller of the highest order. Think Die Hard, but with a lot of Academy Award nominations on the way. Though there are moments of intense violence and fear, Captain Phillips stays as best it can within the PG-13 realm. It’s never too dark or upsetting. But it’s definitely the biggest white-knuckle ride you’ll find in theaters this year. And very likely the next couple as well.