Paul Greengrass makes thrillers feel realistic (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) and he makes real stories feel like thrillers (Bloody Sunday, United 93). The latter is on display in his new film Captain Phillips, based on the attempted pirating of a US-flagged container ship off Somalia in 2009.
The titular character is Capt. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), who works for the Maersk Shipping Line. We first meet him at his home in Vermont as he prepares to depart to take command of the Maersk Alabama. His interplay with his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener in a small diamond of a role) is completely natural and easy to relate to by the audience; we could have the same conversation with our spouse before heading off to work. In Phillips’ case, though, she drops him at the airport so he can fly a third of the way around the world to meet the vessel at a Middle Eastern port. He’s to take the ship to Mombasa, Kenya, past the Horn of Africa, the peninsula composed of Ethiopia and Somalia that juts out into the Arabian Sea.
On the Somalian coast, mercenaries working for a local warlord arrive at a small fishing village. The warlord’s unhappy that the villagers haven’t provided him with riches recently by pirating passing ships. Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) gathers three men to help him: Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee (Faysel Ahmed) and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali). Together they set sail in a small boat along with another crew of pirates, assisted by a radar-equipped fishing boat that serves as a mother ship.
Phillips arrives at the Maersk Alabama and meets his first mate, Shane Murphy (Michael Chernus). Phillips runs a tight ship, prodding the men back to work when a coffee break goes long. He’s also aware of the danger of piracy around the Horn and has his crew conduct a drill to prepare to repel boarders. While they’re doing it, the two small Somali pirate boats appear on the radar to the Alabama’s stern, chasing after them. The drill becomes reality.
Hanks has inherited the mantle of Jimmy Stewart as the subtle everyman whom you never catch acting. The real Richard Phillips has said that when the two men met while Hanks prepared for the role, he asked very little about the actual hijacking and its resolution but instead focused on the everyday activity of a sea captain. While we’ve come to expect authenticity and naturalness from Hanks, he is matched by the four Somali pirates, especially Barkhad Abdi as Muse. The four men were all amateurs who Greengrass found in Minnesota, where a large number of Somali refugees have settled. While you hate what they’re doing, you also come to understand why and sympathize with the pirates to an extent. In one telling scene that defines the gulf between the two men, Phillips says to Muse, “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people.” Muse responds wearily, “Maybe in America…maybe in America.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (State of Play, The Hunger Games) worked from Phillips’ own published account of the event. While the movie is straightforward with its storytelling, it has a layer of complexity as well. Greengrass’ natural camera work, assisted by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who’d also worked on United 93) builds the tension by capturing individual viewpoints so that it’s like you’re experiencing what happened, rather than watching from a safe distance. After US Navy ships arrive, supplemented by a SEAL team, the tension lags some as the movie moves inexorably to its conclusion, though rather than a simple rah-rah resolution, Greengrass instead focuses on the emotional toll.
This movie, in lesser hands than Greengrass, could have gone the Die-Hard-On-A-Ship, yippee-ky-yea route. Instead Greengrass has created an adult, thinking-man’s thriller and a powerful film.