Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips is every bit the action thriller it promises to be.
Captain Phillips is based on the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship. Somali pirates attacked the ship in the Indian Ocean, struggled with the crew and eventually took real-life captain Richard Phillips hostage in a lifeboat.
The movie tells the story of the hijacking and subsequent rescue of Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, who, as he so often does, captivates. When Tom Hanks wants you to feel an emotion, nine times out of 10, you’re going to feel that emotion.
This is exactly the kind of movie you want to talk at—tell the characters on screen exactly what to do to stay alive because you don’t believe their decisions are as good as yours. What trips up this instinct, though, is how smart the titular character is. He, again and again, thinks quickly to maneuver himself through a dangerous situation. Captain Phillips is impressive.
The most interesting and outstanding thing about this movie is the way it speaks to what life, economics, and desperation can do to someone. To one of his captors, Hanks says that we all have a boss—someone who has given us a task we must complete. He uses this truth to attempt to establish a common ground, and it works for the purpose of the movie, if not for his captors.
Greengrass takes time at the movie’s beginning to show Phillips preparing to leave his home and family in Vermont to go out to sea juxtaposed against an oddly similar scene in Somalia with young men being bullied into a twisted way of earning money and survival.
There are no questions in the movie about who the “bad guys” are and who the “good guys” are because that question doesn’t take much thought to answer. This movie makes you think about what drives people to make bad choices and become those bad people. Times of extreme hardship can bring out the best in people, but they can also bring out the worst.
It’s hard to present a version of true events to an audience that knows the story and have them walk away feeling this much sympathy for the “bad guys.” The performances by Mahat M. Ali, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman and Barkhad Abdi as the young Somali pirates are what reveal the complicated truth about the line between good and evil. These actors artfully convey fear, desperation, anger and youth to let you know this story is not told in black and white.
Abdi, portraying the pirates’ leader, Muse, is a standout in his film debut.
The theme hard times forcing hard decisions is woven throughout a well-paced movie. The absolutely infrequent lulls in action serve to build the tension and suspense.
Captain Phillips thrills, but it brings some food for thought to the table too.