“Everything’s going to be okay” reassures Somali pirate leader Muse during Captain Phillips, the biopic thriller from director Paul Greengrass (United 93 and The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum) about Captain Richard Phillips, who captained the Maersk Alabama in April, 2009 when a group of four Somali pirates boarded the ship, and held Phillips hostage in a lifeboat for five days out in the Indian Ocean.
Starting with a short drive to the airport, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife have a conversation about how the days of finding work are getting tougher. Cut to: Somalia, where a group of four people are being selected out of dozens, hoping to gain income from a mission to scrape by just a while longer. Truly, the times are tougher. Phillips, captaining the Alabama, runs drills to prepare for the possibility of piracy attacks as the ship travels off the coast of Africa to make port in Mombasa. During traveling, the Alabama is boarded and hijacked by the group of pirates, who eventually seize control of a small lifeboat, and hold Phillips for ransom as they travel towards Somalia with the NAVY attempting to intervene.
Much of what makes Captain Phillips such a great movie is the direction by Greengrass. He’s often known for his films of gritty realism and down to the tiniest detail perfectionism in craft, and the same can be said here. Working from Billy Ray’s wonderful script, Greengrass creates constant tension and investment during each sequence. Phillips, in this film, is played effectively as an everyman, who can make some reckless decisions, by Tom Hanks, and tries his absolute best to keep his composure under the stressful crisis, until it all crumbles away much later during the film’s third act, where he breaks down hard. Hanks is simply excellent in the role, and he plays it so well that you practically forget it’s even him. With this role, Hanks has been granted one of his very best performances ever. He has a lot of fantastic scenes playing against Somali ringleader Abduwali Muse. He’s played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, and the way that he fiercely goes toe to toe with a veteran like Hanks, you would never guess that this was his first film. Same can be said of the other Somalis, who realistically portray violence through desperation.
That is what provides one of the greatest strengths of Captain Phillips. The film manages to humanize the four Somalis just as much as the American characters, and help us understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. At the end of the day, this ordeal feels routine to them, and they’re simply doing this because they’re the ones with guns pointed at them when they’re finished with a job. For both Hanks and Abdi, they represent the clash between their worlds and ideals. When Phillips tells Muse that there must be more than just fishing and kidnapping, it hits hard when Muse answers him with “Maybe in America.” From this, much of the aforementioned tension in the film is greatly achieved. Aside from the film’s well directed action, scenes in the film play out with such an underlain intensity that I couldn’t breathe. Greengrass tones down his usual usage of shaky cam for this film, allowing Barry Ackroyd to present the film with a welcome documentation style of the events, especially in letting the claustrophobic space in the lifeboat take hold. The sound crew also does a fantastic job of immersing the viewer in the space of the film. Perhaps the film's most valuable asset is the smart editing of Christopher Rouse (give this man an Oscar!), who cuts and paces the film in a way that gives each situation in the film a gravity and strong emotional context, especially during the film’s second half where stress gets to Muse’s crew and Phillips.
All in all, it’s an outstanding movie.
***** / *****