There’s a moment about three-quarters of the way through Captain Phillips when the titular captain and four Somali pirates open the hatch of a cramped, stinking lifeboat and look outside, only to see a pair of massive, imposing U.S. Navy ships.
To say that one feels pity for the Somalis in that moment would be untrue—they have proven themselves to be terrible, if desperate, people. But this staggering visualization of American might, combined with what we’ve seen of the pirates beforehand, blunts what could have been portrayed as a massively triumphalist sequence of events in the climax that follows.
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Captain Phillips is a story of two captains: Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), head of the container ship Maersk Alabama, and Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a gaunt Somali pirate attempting to capture the Alabama, its stores, and its crew, which can be ransomed for millions of dollars.
While making a run through the pirate-infested waters of Africa, Phillips and his ship are boarded by Muse and his ragtag band of AK-47 toting, khat-chewing brigands. These are violent thugs, content to spray gunfire at the bridge and jam the butt of their rifles into the backs of those who defy them. They jeer at the American crew, taunting them both in English and in Somali.
We get a sense of life on the Somali coast in a brief scene at the beginning of the film. Heavily armed emissaries of the local warlord descend upon Muse’s camp, demanding the crews find ships to capture. Desperate men crowd around, begging to go out on the mission.
"Next time bring something if you want to work," spits one of the men heading the raid. This scene, with its echoes of On the Waterfront, implicitly links the pirates to organized crime, and helps us understand both the inherent immorality of piracy and its business-like nature. As Muse says in another scene, "No al Qaeda here. Just business."
Director Paul Greengrass is an expert at ratcheting up tension. Looking through his trademark handheld camera, we follow the action on board the Alabama from the perspective of Phillips, who is taking a pair of the pirates around the ship, and of Phillips’ men, who are working to strand the ship in the water so the U.S. Navy can scramble to their location. As the crew scatters and the anxiety mounts, we find ourselves marveling at the bravery of the Alabama’s mates—and the general incompetence of the pirates.
That sense of ineptitude on the part of Muse and his crew—and the calm, cold, calculating competence of the Navy SEALs and their commander, who are eventually called in to rescue Phillips—keeps the film from devolving into spectacle. Overcoming a diabolical genius who has all the angles covered, as in Die Hard, is satisfying on a primal level. Overcoming a quartet of overmatched, underfed brigadiers residing in a failed state, on the other hand, is not.
Hanks excels in the role of blue-collar everyman, though his pitchy New England accent feels strained at times. Abdi, making his acting debut opposite a two-time Oscar winner, never feels overmatched. He lends Muse a sense of fatigued angst, selling the later scenes with weary eyes and stooped shoulders. And a chilling precision underlies Max Martini’s turn as the SEAL commander, a role for which he prepared over four seasons on The Unit.
Captain Phillips is a gripping action-thriller, one that hews closely to the events as they occurred, and offers an intimate glimpse into the fight for survival endured by all parties to the crime.