Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips
Barkhad Abdi as Muse
Barkhad Abdirahman as Bilal
Faysal Ahmed as Najee
Mahat M. Ali as Elmi
Michael Chernus as Shane Murphy
Catherine Keener as Andrea Phillips
David Warshofsky as Mike Perry
Corey Johnson as Ken Quinn
Chris Mulkey as John Cronan
Yul Vazquez as Captain Frank Castellano
Max Martini as SEAL Commander
Omar Berdouni as Nemo
Mohamed Ali as Asad
Issak Farah Samatar as Hufan
Directed by Paul Greengrass
The cargo ship Maensk Alabama, captained by one Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), is taking cargo down the coast of Africa when it’s boarded and taken by four Somali villagers bearing machine guns. Phillips is well-prepared for such an invasion and does what he can to protect his crew, but with the mission not going as planned, they decide to take Phillips hostage aboard a lifeboat.
One of this month’s many “ripped from the headlines” movies, “Captain Phillips” tells one of the stories that was all over the news a few years back when Somali pirates were taking cargo ships in order to raise money for local warlords. Doing another tense thriller about hijackers is not a huge stretch for director Paul Greengrass after “United 93,” the big difference being that Tom Hanks is in the mix as a recognizable movie star among mostly unrecognizable faces, creating a hostage thriller very different from the ones we’ve seen previously, like say “Die Hard.”
Adapted from Phillips’ own recounting of the events by screenwriter Billy Ray, the film starts by slowly introducing Philips as he’s making his way to work, having a hunch this latest job won’t be routine smooth sailing, so he beefs up security and has the crew drill. What might be surprising is when the film shift its focus to a group of Somali fishermen called upon by a warlord to board and take ships hostage for money. We return to them more a few times before they board the Maensk, which gives us a lot more insight into their motivations and being that Phillips himself wasn’t present during the pirates’ planning phase before boarding, it’s fascinating to see how the film extrapolates their motivations.
Once four of the pirates are able to get onboard, you may think you know where things are going, and knowing the true story does give you some idea, but the story is told in a very different way, one that feels more factual than relying on the normal Hollywood artistic licenses. It does go for a relatively slow build though, especially considering how much time it spends on an extended search for the crew by the pirates once they board.
The only thing that might lessen the impact of Hanks’ performance that comes complete with a heavy New England accent, is that it doesn’t have as many chances for dramatic bells and whistles until the very end when we see Phillips’ steel resolve fade away for some intensely emotional moments. Even so, you quickly move past this being a “Tom Hanks movie” since you become so invested in the overarching story and how it unfolds.
It’s hard not to be even more impressed by the inexperienced Barkhad Abdi as the lead pirate Muse, distinctive-looking with his skeletal frame and misaligned teeth, but also exhibiting an impressive range of emotions while creating an incredibly layered character. It’s the type of performance one might expect from a far more experienced actor, and it’s miles ahead of his Somali peers, including one larger member of the group from another tribe who goes for the bug-eyed shouting movie bad we’ve come to expect. Even so, the four actors do a great job giving their characters personalities that set them apart from each other, while also giving us more insight into the individuals and showing them to not just be ruthless and greedy.
Eventually, the pirates vacate the ship via a lifeboat, taking Captain Phillips along with them as their hostage, leading to a tense standoff with the Navy, which makes up much of the film’s second half. As interesting as it is to see how cargo ships like the Maensk deal with possible boarding by pirates, watching a Navy Seal operation taking effect is far more exciting. Although the movie does shift its focus to the characters trying to rescue Phillips, Greengrass always returns to the lifeboat and its five inhabitants to further the dynamics as Phillips tries to keep tempers cooled down as friction grows between Phillips’ would-be kidnappers.
There have been many complaints over the years about Greengrass’ fast editing and shaky camera, both which seem somewhat lessened here, although he still uses some of his trademark techniques in giving the film a documentary feel. The score is kept fairly minimal to contribute to that effect as Greengrass proves himself to be a master of pacing by allowing tension to build over the course of slower scenes rather than feeling the need to make every scene explode with intensity.
The Bottom Line:
Paul Greengrass has created another gripping thriller with clear intentions to create as realistic a portrayal of actual events as possible while still keeping the viewer invested using cinematic tension.