Captain Phillips (2013) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence, bloody images, and for substance use
Running Time: 134 min.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkha Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chemus, David Warchofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, Max Martini, Omar Berdouni
Small role: Catherine Keener
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenplay: Billy Ray (based on the book, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea", by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty)
Review published October 11, 2013
Captain Phillips deals with the highly publicized events from April, 2009, in which four Somali pirates took over a freighting vessel, the Maersk Alabama, commanded by Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks, Cloud Atlas) in the Gulf of Aden. While most of the crew lay in hiding in the ship's engine room, Phillips tried to negotiate with the pirates who were holding him and a couple of other crewmembers at gunpoint, wanting to make their way out with millions. Events slowly begin to turn against the pirates, eventually forcing them to make their way back to Somalia in one of the ship's lifeboats with far less in their haul than what they were seeking, except that they take along with them Captain Phillips, hoping to use him for ransom.
Although what happens after this is something that had been covered in the news of the day extensively, I'll leave the plot summary at this for those people whose recollections are hazy or nonexistent. Even if the events are known by the viewer from beginning to end, whether they learned of them from the news of from reading Phillips own first-hand account of his experiences in his book, the ordeal is made much more personal when we witness the dramatization of the events as they unfold. Phillips' memoir provides the basis for the adaptation from veteran screenwriter-for-hire, Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, State of Play), who also scripts the dialogue of the Somalis (pure conjecture, as Phillips didn't understand what they were saying), who only occasionally speak in English.
There are some early scenes in Somalia that are obviously fictionalized, set up to draw a contrast between the environs of the Somalis with that of Americans, which makes Captain Phillips more a Hollywood story based on a real life event than a docudrama. Though the Somali pirates are the obvious aggressors, they aren't painted as evil so much as caught up in circumstances where they feel they have to do what they're doing due to their "tribal' expectations and the fact that, outside of becoming fishermen, there aren't many other career options for a young Somali. Even Phillips, at least as portrayed in the film, comes to sympathize with their plight, offering to administer first aid to their injuries and giving them advice on how to take charge of the situation toward the best possible outcome.
Captain Phillips is a solid dramatic reenactment featuring good performances and tense thrills. Perhaps it is a bit long and loose on occasion, especially in the first 45 minutes, but once it gets going, there's enough payoff to overlook many of the quibbles one might have in the build-up. It's directed by Paul Greengrass, who is best known as the handheld shaky-cam artist who helmed The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, but who also exceled in other dramatizations of real-life tragedies in Bloody Sunday and United 93. He delivers best when the gripping action begins to take hold, and adequately during the more quiet moments. While Phillips may not go down as Tom Hanks's best role, he does deliver powerfully during a few emotionally resonant scenes in the final half hour, when the events grow particularly tense and dour.
Even if you already know the details and the outcome, Captain Phillips gives us a chance to experience what it might have been like to be in such a terrible predicament, as well as how many smaller acts of bravery that Phillips performed in order to try to secure the safety and security of the crew and the vessel they are on. Along with the more straightforward and equally well-made, A Hijacking, Captain Phillips shows how terrifying the stakes are for the people on board isolated ships traversing hostile waters with no ability to defend themselves except through their own ingenuity and courage in the face of great danger.
©2013 Vince Leo