Day 244: Captain Phillips

"It's okay Irish... It's only us now."
For a few days in April 2009, the whole world was learning of a drama unfolding off the coast of Somalia, as Somali pirates had taken an American freighter and its crew hostage. The story gained traction for being the first military action of President Obama's administration, and for weeks it was all anyone could talk about, even being parodied on South Park. But the real story behind the saga of the Maersk Alabama, its crew, and its Captain Richard Phillips hadn't been explored in any real depth beyond the typical reductive sound bites, quips, and quotes. Based, in part, on Phillips' own book, director Paul Greengrass' film seeks to present a factual and realistic version of the events we all thought we knew fairly well.
Opening in Vermont in early April 2009, Captain Phillips tells the intersecting stories of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and a Somalian pirate named Muse (Barkhad Abdi). The two are on a collision course, with Phillips captaining the Maersk Alabama through the dangerous waters around the Horn of Africa and Muse captaining a crew of four men determined to come aboard and prove themselves to the elders back in Somalia. Their first encounter ends with Phillips successfully outmaneuvering Muse's crew, but the next day, Muse and his men prove wily enough to land aboard the freighter and take the Captain hostage.
The freighter's crew follows protocol and hides aboard the ship, and attempts by the pirates to locate them prove unsuccessful. Seeing no alternative to end the conflict in a satisfactory manner, the pirates decide to flee the ship in its lifeboat with $30,000 from the safe, but a last minute change of plans leads them to bring Phillips along as a bargaining chip to extort even more money from the shipping company. They very quickly get in over their heads, and it isn't long before they begin to run out of options, none of which can possibly end well for them.
As a director, Paul Greengrass knows better than almost anyone how to drop the audience into the middle of events and give them the visceral thrill of being a part of the action. Never one to hedge his bets or play it safe, Greengrass loves to linger in the murky grey areas of this entire scenario, making it hard to sympathize with the pirates, but impossible not to feel some emotion towards their impossible situation. He's smart to dodge full on empathy, but at the same time savvy enough to show that sometimes there are no easy answers. It's only in the last forty minutes or so that he begins to lose focus a bit. By opening up the world and showing the tactical decision made by the American military, we lose some of immediacy of Phillips' situation, but he pulls it all back into focus brilliantly in the last ten minutes.
As for Phillips, he is presented as a hard man to like at first. He's a bit of a stick in the mud, and doesn't give his crew much leeway when it comes to the codes of conduct. They challenge him after their first encounter with the pirates, and he pushes back hard. His decision making abilities once the pirates come aboard, however, show him to be a man in full control of a seemingly uncontrollable situation. While the parallels between Phillips and Muse are obvious in the early goings, it's here that they begin to separate and show that Phillips is much more cunning than Muse gives him credit for, and Muse is just a little too trusting of Phillips, a quality that Phillips manages to exploit well in key moments.
Greengrass works with many of the same people on his projects, so there is a unifying feel to all of his films, no matter how varied the subject matter. His frequent cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoots the film well, particularly the second half of the film which takes place almost exclusively inside the lifeboat. While his tendency to sake the camera can be a bit disorienting, it's used strategically here with the first half having a bit more of a classic look, and the desperate second half having a much more handheld feel. Editor Christopher Rouse also makes the most of the footage, keeping the film moving in the first half and then agonizingly suspenseful in the second half, dragging things out to emphasize the claustrophobia and desperation.
Tom Hanks got to be one of the most respected and likable actors in Hollywood for a reason, and he effortlessly slips into the role of a man who possesses a good deal of the former with very little of the latter. Hanks is fantastic in this film, and has no problem playing those grey areas mentioned earlier. He shows us a man that's fully three dimensional without worrying about how the audience will perceive him, whether it be as a hero or as a man who did the best he could under excruciating circumstances. His final scene, in particular, will likely leave you speechless.
The four actors who play the main pirate roles are all very good as well, making the most of the screen time they have and providing four well-rounded characterizations. As Muse, Abdi shows a great deal of control and assurance for a first time actor, and I sincerely hope he finds more work as he proves himself to be more than capable here. The rest of the cast is comprised of more or less unknowns, with a smattering of familiar character actors, but Greengrass cast the film well enough to not make any of them distracting, save perhaps the ridiculous wig that Catherine Keener wears in her first, and only, scene in the film.
Captain Phillips is a very good film that avoids many of the traps that kept me from loving Zero Dark Thirty. It's got an emotional core that film was lacking, and gives the audience a much narrower view of this situation and a closer connection to its characters. The film's final few scenes are a real gut punch and don't approach ZDT's borderline jingoistic finale. It's an exhausting film, to be sure, but it gives you a real sense of what it would have been like to be in such a situation yourself, and that's what makes the film such a success. You may not find yourself bounding out of the theater, eager to revisit this film anytime soon, but you'll feel like you had a true experience right alongside the characters in the film, which is something that's in short supply these days.
GO Rating: 4/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]