Film Review: Captain Phillips

A fine, muscular performance from Tom Hanks and a convincing, gripping rendering of the real-life pirate hijacking off Somalia of an American container ship make for high-seas adventure of a high order.

As the remarkable United 93 and hard-charging The Bourne Ultimatum attest, director Paul Greengrass is a master of authenticity and action, two qualities again on fine display in Captain Phillips, the story of the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama, on a cargo mission around the Horn of Africa.

Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is first met at his Vermont home as wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) helps him prepare for his flight to Oman, where he will join the Alabama for many months at sea. Once onboard, Phillips goes through the usual rituals with his crew, including Shane Murphy (Michael Chernus), his chief mate and second-in-command.

Meanwhile, on the African continent in a seaside Somalian village, Muse (Barkhad Abdi) learns that a warlord is enlisting men for a new piracy mission. As Muse, desperate for work, is one of the many local fishermen whose livelihood was stolen by the increase of illegal foreign fishing vessels in what were exclusive Somalian waters, he is determined to be hired as captain of the effort. With experience as a pirate, he is selected and puts together a small team that includes Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) and the towering hulk that is Najee (Faysal Ahmed).

Seaborne in their small skiff and well-armed, the pirates spot the Alabama as their target. As it hurls through choppy waters, watchmen on the Alabamas bridge spot it and another skiff and alert their captain. Phillips, sensing the menace and manning an unarmed carrier, sends most of his crew to hide in the engine room below but keeps on the bridge with him second mate, Ken Quinn (Greengrass regular Corey Johnson). He immediately calls maritime security, which suspects the skiffs are only carrying fishermen.

Muse’s skiff eventually draws close enough that the skilled pirates can attach ladders to the giant Alabama. They gain access to the upper deck and confront Phillips on the bridge. Much back-and-forth, cat-and-mouse suspense follows as the pirates attempt to find the crew and Phillips and his men struggle for their lives and ways to divert the pirates. One ingenious gambit has Murphy, who has left the engine room to find water for the men, notice that one of the pirates is shoeless. He alerts the crew to leave broken glass in the engine room doorway the pirates are sure to breach. The deed done, Bilal steps into the trap and severely cuts his feet. Later, the engine room crew capture Muse when he enters the dark space alone, aided only by his flashlight.

With Muse captured, there are negotiating cards to play on both sides. Phillips offers the still-armed pirates $30,000 ransom and first aid for the injured Bilal. But the upshot has Phillips as the hostage of the pirates in the Alabama’s lifeboat, which they plan to take to Somalia where they will release the captain for a high ransom.

That a handful of Somalian outlaws in a skiff can seize control of a giant container ship has to be seen and, thanks to Greengrass and his crew, will be believed and savored. Most of the film was shot on open water around Malta and much of this adventure takes place on rolling, rough seas.  For further verisimilitude, which is a Greengrass hallmark, Captain Phillips uses vessels, including the container ship, a guided-missile destroyer and assault ships, similar to those in the actual incident. And many performers in minor roles are non-professional actors, who actually work on ships.

As he did with the potentially politically charged United 93, Greengrass sets the deep political underpinnings in the background. Yes, there are some largely visual references to the hardships endured on the Somalian shore and the inequity between those who have and those who don’t in an increasingly globalized world. And a few lines of dialogue in Billy Ray’s excellent script do briefly address the impact of industrial overfishing on the Somalian locals.

But Captain Phillips functions most as a handsomely, elaborately produced “hardware” movie that satisfies in both its details and the sustained suspense of its action elements.  And by having Hanks in the starring role.

In line with former documentarian Greengrass’ devotion to realism and flesh-and-blood characters devoid of cliché, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than two-time Oscar winner Hanks onboard. Right down to the hint of a New England accent, Hanks inhabits his decent character overtaken by horrifying circumstances with a mix of emotions, good common sense and courage that demand viewer empathy.

Greengrass wisely re-teamed with his United 93 cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who shares the filmmaker’s background in documentaries. Again, Ackroyd uses handheld cameras and essential close-ups and dispenses with dolly tracks and constraining marks that actors must hit.

Captain Phillips, which was the New York Film Festival’s prestigious Opening Night selection, is well over two hours, but viewers will forget their watches as the film moves toward its thrilling finale with the relentless force of an unstoppable sea vessel.