Hanks Does a Good Job as Captain Phillips
Captain Phillips is the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged container ship MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years. The film focuses on the relationship between the Alabama’s commanding officer, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the Somali pirate captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who takes him hostage. Phillips and Muse are set on an unstoppable collision course when Muse and his crew target Phillips’ unarmed ship; in the ensuing standoff, 145 miles off the Somali coast, both men will find themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
Richard Phillips is an American merchant seaman who spent several of the tensest days imaginable locked in a struggle with Somali pirates in 2009. If you remember the news accounts, you remember the outcome. But there is a big difference between knowing about something and experiencing it.
Phillips, a middle-aged civilian captain leaves Vermont in late March 2009 to take a container ship from southern Oman down along the coast of Somalia to Kenya. Unusual for a vessel in these waters, it’s an American ship, the Maersk Alabama out of Norfolk, manned by a U.S. crew. Given the rash of recent pirate attacks, he is extremely attentive to security. He doesn’t say so, it’s clear Phillips just wants to get done, collect his check and go home.
On the beach in the pirate city of Eyl, Somalia, voyages of a different sort are being organized by shouting, rifle-toting young African men recruiting crews to hijack large vessels out at sea and bring back money as well as hostages who might be exchanged for ransom. Dozens of men in their teens and 20s volunteer, and soon enough to man two skiffs are selected.
Phillips notices two boats bearing down on the ship just as his crew is conducting an attack drill. As the Alabama moves slowly with limited maneuverability and no guns or torpedoes, there’s not much the crew can do but shift course and fire water hoses at the pirates. Discouraged by a fake radio transmission, one skiff turns back, but the other perseveres.
Four Somali pirates board the ship. When they discover they’ve taken an American ship, they are happy. The pirates equate the United States with glamour, wealth and good times — all the things they’re after. Thus ensues a cat-and-mouse game in which the crew hides in the engine room while Phillips tries to stall. Eventually the captain offers his captors $30,000 from the ship’s safe and its lifeboat to leave. But one of the pirates (Faysal Ahmed) insists they hold out for millions since these ships are insured.
And so it begins: Phillips must deal with four machine gun-carrying men, whose culture he doesn’t understand, and who are all chewing khat, a plant that makes them aggressive and euphoric. Only Muse speaks enough English to hold a conversation. As Muse and the youngest pirate (Barkhad Abdirahman) are injured and a U.S. Navy ship is moving in, they take off in the lifeboat with Phillips hoping to reach Somali before the Navy SEALs gets to them.
How many heels does it get?
In Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass gets viewers to a place where they feel it — enough that they appreciate what Phillips went through. This is an intense and complicated story, and the film doesn’t rush it. Captain Phillips was guaranteed to be a gripping chronicle because what happened was so remarkable. But beyond the bare facts, there’s also Phillips, who found himself in a predicament demanding that he be smart, shrewd and brave in the face of danger. Phillips is not just somebody who had something extraordinary happen to him. He’s an extraordinary person in his own right. That, as much as anything else, makes Captain Phillips more than a thriller, but a tale of character and someone who inspires awe.
Hanks’ New England accent sounds like he’s just talking funny. But his face expresses not only his emotions, but the complexity of his thinking. For example, at one point he knows the pirates are either going to be killed or imprisoned, that there is absolutely no way out for them. And he sits in dread of their realizing it. Likewise, his depiction of a man in a state of traumatic shock must go down as one of his best moments on screen. Rated PG-13. Opens Oct. 11, 2013.
My rating: 3 out of 5 Heels
Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.