I have no idea what I was doing in 2009 that led me to be so unaware of major world events, but I have only a vague recollection of the Somali pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama and the ensuing attempts to rescue the ship’s captain, who’d been taken hostage on a life boat. However, after Zero Dark Thirty came out last year, I read the book No Easy Day, which was written by one of the Navy SEALs on the team that killed Osama bin Laden. It just so happens that the author was also involved in the Maersk Alabama rescue, and so I gained a little insight into how that incredible mission unfolded as well.
By the time the SEALs arrived on the scene five days after the Alabama’s hijacking, however, the situation had already escalated into Last Ditch Effort territory.
Captain Phillips — adapted by Billy Ray from Phillips’ book A Captain’s Duty — shows us the full story: every tense twist, and every life-or-death decision Phillips, his crew and the pirates had to make. I could barely take the stress of watching this movie; I have no idea how the real people on the ship were able to keep it together for so long. I can’t imagine that any of them thought they’d ever see their families again.
And that’s exactly why it was critical for an actor like Tom Hanks to play Phillips. Hanks is nothing if not an “everyman.” There are few A-list stars more relatable, and even fewer who could give off the kind of non-threatening presence and calm-in-the-face-of-danger vibe that proved so critical when dealing with automatic-rifle-wielding, amphetamine-chomping, barely English-speaking, stressed-out and suspicious Somali pirates. Even though the four pirates were shooting directly at crew members and firing off rounds as they boarded the ship, once they reached and attempted to talk with Phillips, they seemed more comfortable with what they were dealing with. And that sense of being in control is what kept the pirates from immediately killing everyone on sight.
As much as it’s hard to picture anyone but Hanks in the title role, it’s equally impossible for me to envision anyone other than newcomer Barkhad Abdi as pirate leader Muse. Especially because as much as you know you should be hating and cursing the small group of Somalian teenagers who’ve put the lives of twenty innocent and unarmed men in grave danger, you end up feeling intermittent pangs of sympathy for them (well, for three of them). And that is thanks to Muse’s subdued confidence, his well-timed, limited outbursts and his ongoing attempt to assure Phillips that “everything is going to be OK.” You can almost see the wheels turning in Muse’s head as the situation grows increasingly dire, and since the film’s opening sequences have established why he’s there in the first place, you can’t help but feel some sort of guilty sympathy for him in what soon becomes a lose-lose situation. As the final conflict draws near and Phillips begs Muse to surrender, you fully understand why he replies, “I can’t give up now.” What’s more, you might actually find yourself hoping it doesn’t end badly for him.
A real-life story like this would take tension to the next level no matter what. But director Paul Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd used many of the same techniques from their previous work together on United 93 and Green Zone (not to mention the two Bourne installments Greengrass helmed) to establish realism. Jittery camerawork, clever angles to evoke dominance, a documentary-like look — it’s all there.
There are Big Questions that Captain Phillips raises. Even bigger than “What in the hell would *I* do in this situation?!?” Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray don’t force the obvious geopolitical issues, though. The way you’ll feel after the story reaches its violent conclusion does that work for them.
Captain Phillips remains captivating until the very second its end credits start rolling. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt that way — felt so thoroughly shaken right up to a movie’s parting shot. Some of Hanks’ best work of his career, which will undoubtedly earn him an Oscar nod, comes in the film’s final moments. Don’t miss it.