A pirate tale
A tense, engrossing biopic of Somali hijacking of U.S. merchant ship
Captain Phillips, the new film by Paul Greengrass (United 93, Green Zone, The Bourne Ultimatum, etc.), gives an extraordinarily riveting account of the real-life encounter, in 2009, between a U.S. merchant vessel—the Maersk Alabama—and a quartet of Somali pirates.
You probably already know that the title character, Capt. Richard Phillips, underwent an exceptionally arduous test of courage and savoir-faire in the course of the incident and its assorted ordeals, and that he lived to tell about it. Greengrass’ film gives these events of the recent past a present-tense urgency, and that produces a fascinating mixture of suspenseful storytelling and incisive sensitivity to nuances of character.
Tom Hanks has the title role and he delivers a performance that is good throughout and perhaps great in the film’s brilliantly devised final sequence. Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray keep the central focus on Phillips, but never lose sight of what’s going on with the Maersk Alabama’s 20-man crew or with the scrawny quartet of Somali youths who first try to take over the ship and then later try to take flight with Phillips as hostage.
A key drama within the larger one comes from the keenly nuanced battle of wits, male pride, and all-round know-how that develops between Phillips and the gaunt, rail-thin pirate called Muse (a haunting Barkhad Abdi). Ray’s screenplay works up a set of parallels and contrasts between Phillips’ crew and Muse’s tiny, desperate band of pirates, and part of the film’s special appeal is in the attention it pays, however briefly, to a small multitude of characters and their disparate points of view.
Much of the film plays as a kind of high-tech maritime/military procedural in international waters. Navy SEALs, a battleship, surveillance drones and other spy technology all play roles in the suspense elements, but the film rises to its most impressive levels when we begin to see that the simplistic good guys/bad guys outlook that usually prevails in such stories gets deflected here in some very interesting and even moving ways.
The U.S. Navy wins its more or less inevitable victory here, but while that victory and the rescue that goes with it are more than welcome at the end of this tense drama, Greengrass and company steer clear of any formulaic triumphalism. The screenplay and direction combine with Hanks’ quietly multifaceted performance to portray Phillips as a genuine hero, but also as one deeply marked by the devastating cost of victory.
A recurring refrain in Ray’s screenplay has characters in the midst of a crisis telling others that everything is going to be OK. There’s a sense of foreboding that goes with that claim right from the first time we hear it. By the film’s final scenes, we have begun to see how much of that refrain is true and how much of it is not.