With Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali. Written by Billy Ray. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use. 134 minutes.
Over the last decade or so, director Paul Greengrass has been building a distinctive body of work. If you don’t know his name, learn it. You probably already admire several of his films and may not even be aware they were made by the same person. His films include “The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “United 93,” “Bloody Sunday,” and “Green Zone.” What they share in common is a dispassionate, almost documentary, style of storytelling and a deep respect for professionals doing their jobs in extreme circumstances.
Such is the case with CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, which is about an American cargo ship off the coast of Africa dealing with Somali pirates. This is not an action/adventure tale––although there is plenty of suspense––nor is it a story where the victimized hostage exacts bloody revenge. Instead it is a careful unfolding of the true 2009 incident in which Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) had his ship boarded by pirates and found himself taken for ransom when their initial attack was thwarted.
As the American crew watches the motorboats approaching the slow-moving cargo ship, we see Phillips remain calm and take one step after another in response. They try evasive maneuvers. They have fire hoses around the ship pointed outward to make boarding difficult. They have locked gates and doorways. As each of these proves ineffective, Phillips moves takes additional steps. If he can’t reach the American authorities, he contacts the British ones. If a crew member says he didn’t sign on to fight in a war, Phillips tells him he’ll be happy to terminate his contract strictly according to the rules… when they complete their current journey.
As with the air traffic controllers in “United 93”––and for that matter, with Jason Bourne––it’s not so much that Phillips is a “hero” as that his staying focused on what needs to be done regardless of the circumstances is what makes him heroic. The film is somewhat less successful in sketching in the four Somali pirates who become the center of the story. What we learn is that they are ruthless and desperate, and are, in turn, being brutalized by violent warlords. When Phillips replies to their leader, “We all have bosses,” it is the ultimate admission that we really can’t understand their perspective.
That said, the Somali actors––played by Somali refugees now living in the United States––do an impressive job, particularly Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, the leader of the raiding party. His character is the one who, besides Phillips, is allowed some complexity. He also has a job to do and is trying not to lose control of the situation between thuggish “colleagues” on his side and an American captain he fears is trying to “trick” him out of the loot on board the ship. Abdi makes Muse almost sympathetic so that if Muse had been fortunate enough to flee the country (as Abdi was when his parents took him to Minneapolis as a child) he might have made a new life for himself.
We expect a Tom Hanks performance to be solid and professional, and he doesn’t disappoint here. He may not win a third Oscar for it, but he’ll undoubtedly be nominated for one. The name to note, though, is Paul Greengrass. With “Captain Phillips,” he clinches the notion that his earlier successes were not the result of simply having a powerful story or a charismatic lead actor. There was a filmmaker with a solid vision behind the camera, and this ought to secure his position in the current front ranks of filmmakers.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.