“Captain Phillips” is the new thriller directed by Paul Greengrass based on the true story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama off the Somali coast in April 2009. Tom Hanks stars in the title role as Captain Richard Phillips. The marriage of Greengrass’ direction and Hanks’ polished acting sets the viewer up for an authentic, suspenseful depiction of this true life event.
One of the biggest things I hate about Hollywood films at times is that they use xenophobia (the irrational or unreasoned fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange) to automatically manipulate the viewer in to choosing the side of the (usually white) hero. From the beginning, this film steers clear of that. We’re first introduced to Captain Phillips as he prepares to go out to sea. We see his wife, his home life, and him at his job on the ship. Next we are introduced to Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who later becomes the leader of the pirates who board the Maersk Alabama. Muse sleeps on the floor of a shack, looks like he needs to eat, and is hungry to earn money. Muse isn’t the only one looking to earn some money. Plenty of other men in the village want to earn money and the way they can do that is by being a pirate and highjacking large ships off the coast of Africa. In fact, the men to fulfill the job are picked from a line up like gym class.
This juxtaposition of seeing life through the eyes of the hero (Phillips) and villain (Muse) makes the playing field fair as the two storylines eventually intertwine. Throughout the film it’s easy to sympathize with either side. While rooting for Captain Phillips and the crew to be free, you also can’t help but wish that the Somali’s didn’t have such a bad hand in life...and Abdi does a great job of showing that internal moral conflict.
Greengrass uses his signature frenetic camera moves to keep things on edge. Most of the film is shot in mid-shots to close-ups. He uses the frame to drown us in the moment, forcing us to engage in the characters emotions. Greengrass ups the realism in the film by casting four non-professional Somali-American actors to portray the pirates. The final twenty minutes of the film proves that Hanks is at the top of his game. His character arch from fearless leader to fear-filled victim is incredible.
“Captain Phillips” is a solid thrill ride that allows you to get inside the mind of all involved. It moves a bit slow at points, but the film is in the hands of a master who knows how to ramp things back up. It's hard to do a based-on-a-true-story film but Greengrass and Hanks make it look easy.