Directed by Paul Greengrass
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.
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