Paul Greengrass cements his status as the best director of white-knuckled thrillers that don’t pander to the least common denominator with Captain Phillips, the true story of a U.S. freighter that was hijacked by Somali pirates. The pressure in this film starts almost immediately, and doesn’t let up, even through the cathartic ending.
Tom Hanks stars as the titular captain, who commands the Maersk Alabama, taking food supplies for African charities from Oman to Mombasa. To do so, the ship must pass through the Somali Basin, a haven for pirates. He’s on the alert, and even conducts a drill.
The boarding of the ship is masterful filmmaking, as the freighter is unarmed, but uses a variety of methods, primarily shooting water out of hoses. But they are boarded nonetheless, and most of the crew hides in the engine room, but Hanks, keeping cool, stalls and does everything he can to get the pirates off the ship. But he is taken hostage when the pirates take to the sea in the lifeboat. They are then pursued by the U.S. Navy.
What sets this apart from other films like it is that the pirates, especially the leader, played by Barkhad Abdi, are not portrayed as simple-minded villains. We cut from Hanks driving to the airport in Vermont to the Somali village, where men gather round to be picked for crews to get ships. It’s basically the local economy. Abdi answers to the local warlord, and thus has some pressure on him to bring in money, much like a salesman needing to make his fourth-quarter numbers.
Much of the film is the interaction between Hanks and Abdi (the pirates are played by actors recruited from the Somali community in Minnesota). There is a certain respect between them, from the chilling moment that Abdi says to Hanks, “I am the captain now.” Abdi carries a certain dignity with the role, as indicated when he says, even after the jig is up, “I can’t give up now,” or when Hanks wonders aloud that certainly there must be more he can do for money than kidnap. “Maybe in America,” Abdi says, a line that probably doesn’t look good on the page but has a resonance in Abdi’s tone.
This whole film, from the moment Hanks spots the pirates, is almost unrelieved tension. Interestingly, it continues in a fascinating coda. Normally one might expect the film to end with Hanks’ rescue, but it keeps going, into his examination by a Navy doctor. Hanks reminds us of his skills as an actor in this scene, as he movingly portrays a man in shock, shaking uncontrollably, covered in blood (not just his own) and unable to answer the simplest questions. It’s almost as if Greengrass were allowing the audience to calm down, as well as Hanks.
A few things bothered me, but they are personal things. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that when the might of the Navy enters the scene, I felt a sense of jingoistic pride, and those portions, while no doubt authentic, carry the whiff of a Naval recruitment commercial. Also, in the long run, this film doesn’t really say anything, other than it sucks to be a Somali. It’s simply a very well-made action film, where stuff doesn’t blow up.
My grade for Captain Phillips: A-.