“Captain Phillips” is the riveting, true story of an American cargo ship hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia in East Africa in 2009. Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, a New Englander who captains the ship when a band of armed pirates comes aboard. In a desperate attempt to save the lives of his crew, Phillips agrees to go with the pirates as a hostage onto one of the ship’s lifeboats. The U.S. Navy arrives. Their plan is to negotiate with the pirates in order to save Phillips’ life. If that doesn’t work, the Navy Seals are ready for action.
Director Paul Greengrass is the right director for this project. He directed the two best Bourne movies (“The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.”) Greengrass also did a great job with a similar true story, “United 93,” about the hijacking of the jet on 9/11 that crashed in Pennsylvania. As with “Captain Phillips,” even though the audience knows the outcome, Greengrass still keeps them on the edge of their seats.
Like “United 93,” there are times that “Captain Phillips” has a documentary feel. Everything about it seems authentic, from the crew to the pirates (far from the buffoonish Johnny Depp pirates) to the Navy Seals. The fact that the actors are all unknown (with Hanks being the notable exception) adds to the film’s authenticity. As Muse, the young pirate leader, Bakhad Abdi gives an incredible debut performance. A native Somali, Abdi moved to Minnesota with his family as a child, and was working as a chauffeur when cast in the film. Now he is a possible supporting actor Oscar nominee.
Muse exercises an amount of restraint over the other pirates. While Abdi doesn’t exactly evoke sympathy, he does at least help the American audience to understand the pirates’ plight. When Phillips tells Muse there must be a better way of making a living than kidnapping, Muse smiles and replies “Maybe in America.” Raised in a lawless country ruled by ruthless warlords, there are few options for anyone seeking an honest way of life.
Tom Hanks is in top form as Phillips, complete with a Yankee accent. Hanks brings his characteristic decency to the role. He’s an experienced captain who wants nothing more than to bring his cargo to port, return to his Vermont home, and then go out again on another voyage. When the pirates board the ship, in a stunningly photographed and edited sequence, Phillips’ first and foremost aim is the safety of his crew. Amazingly, there are no weapons on board to defend the cargo ship. Phillips keeps his cool throughout, even on the hot, cramped lifeboat with his captors. When shots ring out on the boat, the blindfolded Phillips begins screaming. When brought on board the Navy ship, knowing that he’s safe, the pent-up emotions come pouring out. This is an incredible piece of acting. Hanks will likely receive a sixth Oscar nomination and perhaps his third Oscar.
“Captain Phillips” is a very fine study of courage and sacrifice under fire. Phillips demonstrated a Christ-like love: a willingness to lay down his life for his friends.
Tom Condon, OP