Most people hear the word "pirate" and think of peg legs, parrots and Johnny Depp, but modern piracy is still a serious problem. With cargo freighter crews continually downsized to cut costs, even a small skiff of armed men can successfully board a ship to steal cash from the onboard safe, rob the crew, or even commandeer the vessel.
Captain Phillips is based on the 2009 hijacking of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. Despite a few problems, it’s an intense thriller with direction tighter than the confines of a lifeboat.
Richard Phillips is a "Yankee Irish" ship captain assigned to the cargo lanes around the Horn of Africa. Briefed and trained for possible pirate attacks, he and his crew are ready to respond when the Alabama is targeted. At first they fend off their attackers, but Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his friends, Somali villagers pressured into piracy by a local warlord, don’t feel like they have anything to lose, and their second attempt to board the ship succeeds.
But events don’t go according to plan for the pirates, and soon they’re bundled into the ship’s lifeboat, with Phillips as their hostage. As the US Navy moves in to take control of the situation, time is running out for Phillips as the pirates become more desperate – and violent.
Director Paul Greengrass is best known for his work on the Bourne franchise, and the thing I like most about his thrillers is the balance he brings to both the good and bad guys. Of course Phillips and his crew are the heroes of the story, but Muse and company aren’t easily dismissed as villains. They’re not dumb either, just inexperienced and overwhelmed by highly-trained Navy officers, and that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. Greengrass brings out the best in his actors – from Barkhad Abdi’s quiet menace through to the escalating rage of Faysal Ahmed’s Najee. The four actors – all new to Hollywood – are excellent, even though Billy Ray’s script forces them into one-note performances near the end.
If there’s a real concern here, it’s the central character. Phillips isn’t an emotional guy, and once captured it becomes his job to chat up the pirates until he or someone else comes up with a rescue plan. Consequently, Hanks himself often looks like he’s killing time, and the hostage scenes become dull. However, a final scene, reportedly improvised almost as an afterthought, is devastating in its emotional impact, and it’s not until you see it that the full weight of the film’s tense moments is felt. This scene alone may be enough to win Hanks an Oscar nomination, though it’s really the only thing impressive about his performance.
It’s interesting to note that there are conflicting accounts of just how heroic the real-life Phillips was in this situation, but no matter. The movie version is an exciting, full-steam-ahead adventure.
Tags: movie review