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Pain and piracy – ‘Captain Phillips’

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Captain Phillips Captain Phillips

Film features gripping narrative, powerful performances

Movies based on real people and/or events are a tricky thing. Staying true to the subject matter is important, but it may not always be as important as advancing the narrative. Finding the proper blend of fact and fiction is difficult – that’s why “based on a true story” and “inspired by a true story” are two different things.

“Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass (perhaps best known for “Flight 93” and his work on the “Bourne” franchise) from a screenplay by Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”) based on Richard Phillips’s book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” spends most of its two hour-plus runtime walking that tightrope beautifully.

Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks, “Cloud Atlas”) is a freighter captain. His latest assignment is the Maersk Alabama, a cargo freighter laden with an assortment of items to be transported – including a significant amount of humanitarian food aid. The trip is only scheduled for a few days, but Phillips spends the early part of the voyage insisting on by-the-book operation … an insistence that does not particularly endear him to his crew.

Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is a poor man living in a village in Somalia. When the local warlords demand that he and his fellows get out onto the water and “make some money,” Muse grabs a handful of volunteers from among the many hopefuls – the young Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), the mechanically inclined Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) and the enigmatic Najee (Faysal Ahmed) – and sets out to land a prize with a big payoff.

(Note: all four men made their acting debuts with this film.)

Muse targets the Maersk Alabama; due to unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances, the pirates gain access to the unarmed ship and take Phillips prisoner, though he manages to get most of his crew safely below decks and out of sight. The tension mounts as Muse seeks out the crew and tries to set in motion his plan to hold the ship for ransom. But when the plan goes awry, Muse must improvise, and the four pirates make their escape from the ship aboard a powered lifeboat – with Captain Phillips as their captive insurance policy – and head for the Somali coastline.

The drama unfolds as the United States military begins plans to deal with the threat – plans that may or may not be concerned with the well-being of Phillips. As the hours tick by inside the slow-moving lifeboat, cracks begin to show as Muse and his crew begin to realize the enormity of the situation they find themselves in and Phillips confronts the unpleasant realities of his circumstances. 

Greengrass has a particular knack for mining tension; his work here is no different. He has constructed a taut and intense narrative, one that feels much shorter than the 134 minutes it runs. The juxtapositions he strikes between the massiveness of the large ships and the claustrophobia inside the tiny lifeboat are enthralling and engaging. The stylistic choices, the overall tone – Greengrass’s fingerprints are all over this film. And that’s a good thing.

Of course, none of it means anything without strong performances – and this is one of the best we’ve seen from Tom Hanks in 10 years. Maybe more. He is in absolute top form as he brings Phillips to life, presenting a nuanced, faceted character that combines abstracts such as a sense of duty and inherent morality into a high-pressure crucible and produces very real bravery. It is possible to be strong and scared at the same time – a possibility that Hanks illustrates magnificently.

But lest we forget, the quartet of Somali pirates deserves their due. These are four men who had never acted before this film, and yet they manage to not only share the screen with an icon like Hanks, but share it equally. Abdi as the pirate captain Muse is particularly strong; his screen presence is impossible to ignore. There’s a dignified power to the portrayal that manages to humanize the character without ever letting us forget the sinister work being done. Evil deeds do not make a man evil, but the nature of the man does not make them forgivable.

“Captain Phillips” is a powerful portrait, an illustration of what men do under the pressures of extreme duress. It is a gripping, masterful film with some of the best performances of the year.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 17 October 2013 18:24

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