Captain Phillips is heavy on compare and contrast. There are two tough Captains, two wary crews, and two missions to complete. Setting up a battle of wills, wit, and nerve between the two Captains, Captain Phillips threads a thin line between formulaic kidnapping and larger geo-political issues that are really behind the attackers’ motivations.
Starting with déjà vu references to Cast Away, Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) says goodbye to his wife telling her he’ll be safe and will be right back. This time, we are saturated with the transportation/shipping company Maersk instead of Fed Ex. Phillips leads a crew sometimes more interested in union rules than trying to familiarize themselves with sailing through the most dangerous waters on Earth, off the Somalia coast lugging cargo from the Middle East to East Africa.
On the other side, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is under the thumb of a local Somali warlord. Even though he successfully hijacked and ransomed a Greek ship within the past few weeks, he is forced back out on the water again by machine gun toting thugs demanding even more piracy operations. He picks his rag-tag volunteer crew who appear more interested in food than the prospect of millions of dollars in ransom they will not see anyway since almost all the dough is kicked up the ladder to the guys with guns.
The plot and ensuing actions are dangerously close to mundane and expected not because of sub-standard filming or a lazy script, it’s because everyone in the theater already knows there will be a kidnapping. There is an intense chase sequence of the gigantic cargo ship by the threadbare Somali crew, but we all know they get aboard and take Captain Phillips hostage; otherwise there will be no movie. Even if you do not remember the true events behind the film from 2009, the preview ensures you will know everything that happens all the way up to the movie’s climax.
Captain Phillips is an effective film because it is strong enough to overcome everything we already know about the plot. I know the ship gets taken over, yet the suspense of the take-over operation is palpable. I know Phillips gets put on a smaller lifeboat vessel with the kidnappers, but how that comes about is interesting. Kudos to director Paul Greengrass (Green Zone, 2010; United 93, 2006) and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, 2012) for creating clear and defining characteristics for each of the kidnappers. We know who the vicious one is, who the kid is, and definitely who Captain Muse is.
This is Barkhad Abdi’s first acting role ever; he answered a newspaper ad in his adopted home of Minnesota. He is menacing at times to assert his authority, he is exasperated because he just wants to do this business and get paid, and he is most of all afraid of going back home empty-handed. Unfortunately for Muse, he kidnapped an American-flagged vessel not knowing the U.S.’s policy of non-negotiation. In direct contrast with the screaming and in-fighting Somali crew, the Navy SEALs launched toward the lifeboat are ready to kill some people.
Tom Hanks, as usual, delivers a believable and sympathetic character. His northeastern accent supposedly matches the real Captain Phillips down to the last syllable and it is intriguing to watch Hanks and Abdi spar against one another. I categorized Hanks’s portrayal of Phillips as one of his more average performances until the end. While not giving anything away, Tom Hanks catapults his performance into the stratosphere at the end; it is truly a gut-wrenching scene to watch and should be remembered come Oscar time.
My slight complaint with the film is its only brief scenes in Somalia and cursory examination of why Muse is out on the water in the first place. Muse does not personally crave millions of dollars in ransom; in fact, his life is already ransomed back home if he returns with nothing. Muse and his crew are microscopic pawns in a much larger operation of organized piracy financed by unseen hands long removed from war-ravaged and poverty-stricken Somalia. A deeper examination of these driving issues would place Captain Phillips among the year’s best, but it remains an above-average thriller without it.