Taut thriller delivers on many different levels
By Tim Pompey 10/17/2013
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use
2 hr. 14 min.
It’s been almost 20 years since Tom Hanks won an Oscar. I think it’s time he dusts off the two statues he’s already won and clears out a spot on his shelf for number three. Yes, there are a ton of movies to be released by the end of the year, but based on Hank’s performance in Captain Phillips, he’ll clearly be one of Oscar’s frontrunners.
What’s interesting about Captain Phillips, is its many different viewpoints. It has the feel of a TV show such as The Unit (recognize Max Martini?) — armed Americans, desperate Somalis — but with a different take. Unlike that show, there’s a desperation embedded in this imbalance of power that creates sympathy for both sides.
Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a merchant marine and captain of a large Maersk cargo ship. His job is to pilot the Maersk Alabama from Oman to India, passing around the perilous horn of Africa off the Somali coast.
Knowing about the recent rash of pirate attacks on large boats, he’s justifiably nervous and runs his crew through safety drills to prepare for the worst. Unfortunately, the worst does happen as four determined Somalis fight off the ship’s water cannons and flares, board the boat and take Phillips and his crew hostage.
Things take a turn for the worse when the crew of the Alabama manages to force the pirates off the ship and into a submarine shaped lifeboat. Unfortunately, the pirates also take Phillips hostage, setting off an international response that pits four desperate Somalis and one American against the might of the U.S. Navy. 150 miles off the Somali coast, the standoff begins.
Director Paul Greengrass, noted for his excellent work with United 93 and the Jason Bourne franchise, combines elements of both by taking a true story and filling it with chaotic action, precise military maneuvers and sheer desperation.
Greengrass doesn’t waste much time picking sides. Rather he takes the story and edits it to a high gloss. Human action and reaction. People doing what’s necessary to get their jobs done. The Alabama crew has its job. The Somalis have their job. The fact that they collide is simply a matter of fate and circumstance.
Even the Navy’s response is given a dispassionate treatment. No rah-rah attached to its strategy, just commands, muscle and firepower. Like Hanks and the Somalis, the Navy is just doing its job.
But don’t think for a minute that the director’s intent is to simply entertain. Rather, he provides an observant take on the long-term impact of global conquest, human poverty and the conflict that it generates between the haves and the have-nots, especially the ordinary Somali men who seem to have no choice but to attack the haves. Or do they? As a bruised and bleeding Phillips barks at Muse (Barkhad Abdi) in the lifeboat: “You’re not just a fisherman.”
The complexity of these human relationships is excellently portrayed not just by Hanks, but by the Somali pirates themselves. Determined and dangerous, they hold the fate of the ship in their hands, yet argue with each other like children. In particular, there is a wonderfully tense relationship between Muse and Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Somali rivals wrestling for control of the desperate situation.
The trick of this film is to let viewers see more than just good guy versus bad guy, and Greengrass succeeds at filling the screen with worried faces on each side. While Captain Phillips may be a true story, it’s not about heroism. It’s about the power of need and want. Under the guise of an action film, it’s a look at global forces that seem destined to collide. Through the multifaceted camera lens, the viewer sees up close and personal what it really means for the strong to survive.