Movie review: Piracy, poverty and quiet heroism in 'Captain Phillips'
There are two sides to every story, and it's a welcome surprise that in the absorbing "Captain Phillips," director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray don't tell just the title character's tale of ordinary heroism but also the parallel story of global trade and poverty that caused it to happen.
The title character is Richard Phillips, captain of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama. Phillips, played with a minimum of fuss by Tom Hanks, is an unremarkable middle-management kind of guy. He's good to his crew, looking out for their safety but able to spout the company line that everyone knows the risks of long-haul trips across the Indian Ocean.
It's on one of these trips, in April 2009, as the Maersk Alabama sails some 240 miles off the Somali coast bound for Mombasa, Kenya, that trouble starts. Two skiffs manned by Somali pirates approach the cargo ship, and one of them eventually boards the vessel taking Phillips and his bridge personnel hostage, while the rest of the 20-man crew hide down in the engine room.
Greengrass, as he did in "United 93," employs documentary-style filmmaking to re-enact the moment-to-moment details of the incident, re-creating the immediate sense of peril.
Beyond that, he and Ray ("Breach," "Shattered Glass") turn the movie into not just Phillips' story (adapted from his memoir) but that of the other "captain," the pirate leader Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (well played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, a Somali refugee living in Minneapolis when casting agents found him).
Greengrass shows Muse and the other pirates on a beach in Somalia, pressured by the local warlords to get their little rowboats out to sea or else. Every trip out is a chance to reel in a big prize, and every minute spent on the beach means money lost. The movie doesn't glamorize these pirates or sympathize with them, but just representing their side of the geopolitical divide is more than most Hollywood movies would dare.
In the movie's final third, the action shifts to the tight confines of a lifeboat, where three Somalis hold Phillips hostage as U.S. Navy warships close in. This is the part of the story with which the average news consumer is most familiar, and it's where Hanks really shines.
The power of Hanks' performance, one of the best of his career, is that Greengrass never really catches him acting. Hanks doesn't do anything showy, like imitating a New England accent or getting hyper-emotional in the most dramatic passages. He instead inhabits this real-life character, depicting him as an average guy faced with extraordinary life-or-death choices, and trying to keep his wits and his humanity in the process.
"Captain Phillips" becomes, then, not only a riveting drama about quiet heroism, but an eye-opening look at a clash of cultures. It's not just a story of two captains but of two worlds, the corporate-driven industrialized one and the impoverished developing one, and the deadly consequences when they collide.
A confrontation at sea makes for an exciting thriller and opens a view to a battle between cultures.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 11
Rating • PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.
Running time • 134 minutes; in English and in Somali with subtitles.