With “Captain Phillips,” British director Paul Greengrass re-creates the 2009 attack on the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in gripping detail.
Greengrass is the right man for this mission. He previously helmed “United 93,” “Green Zone” and two Jason Bourne movies. The director’s pairing with Tom Hanks in the role of Capt. Richard Phillips, commander of the Maersk Alabama, goes a long way in making the movie a can’t-miss operation.
Greengrass directs from a screenplay by Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”), based on the book by Phillips and Stephan Talty, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.”
The filmmakers’ access to a Maersk Alabama match, the Maersk Alexander, and real U.S. Navy ships, including one of the vessels that participated in the piracy incident (the USS Halyburton), gives the drama immersive physical and visual authenticity.
Famous though Hanks is, he disappears into his performance. Aided by Phillips’ short gray beard, glasses and clipped New England accent, Hanks walks, talks and looks the part of a no-nonsense Yankee ship captain. This is a practical man who keeps his eyes on the job. No lollygagging or whining on his watch.
The movie opens with a glimpse of Phillips at home, as he prepares to go to sea. His wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), asks her husband if he’s all right. Phillips responds with a simple, “Yeah.” She says, “You’d think these trips would get easier.”
The job at hand will take him along the Somali coast and around the horn of Africa. It’s a tough life, being at sea, away from home and family for extended periods, but this is what he does.
The film draws a parallel between Phillips’ work and what has become the work of a Somali fisherman, Muse.
Heavily armed gangs of men show up in Muse’s village and demand that the fisherman launch their skiffs and attack and capture ships off the coast. The vessels, containing cargos worth millions, will be held for huge ransoms. This highly profitable piracy least of all benefits the impoverished fisherman.
Barkhad Abdi, a native of Mogadishu, Somalia, and resident of Yemen before his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was 14, co-stars as Muse. It’s a cool to sometimes explosive, commanding, eventually haunting performance by the first-time actor.
The Maersk Alabama is huge; the pirates skiffs are small. But Phillips and his crew sail without arms. The pirates are heavily armed and equipped with tall, hooked ladders that enable them to latch onto the sides of tall ships and come aboard.
From the pirates’ chase of a really big fish to their boarding and beyond, “Captain Phillips” and the adept-at-thrillers Greengrass milk the story’s tension for all it’s worth. Cameras follow the action into the ship’s hot, cramped, claustrophobia-inducing passageways and compartments.
The peril for Phillips rises to feverish levels. Hanks’ performance as the captain turned hostage is among the best of his career. It’s certainly, too, his most emotionally and physically demanding. A two-time Oscar winner, he seems a likely candidate for another Oscar nomination. Greengrass seems likely to receive awards consideration, too. He’s told a powerfully affecting story.