Captain Phillips recounts the harrowing story of real-life US Captain Richard Phillips whose cargo ship, the MV Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates back in 2009. Headed for Mombasa, Kenya with a crew of 20 and loaded with over 15,000 metric tons of cargo, the MV Maersk Alabama was attacked by a group of hijackers roughly 250 miles outside of Eyl. Despite various anti-pirating protocols performed by Phillips and crew members, four Somali hijackers successfully boarded the cargo ship.
Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) instructs his shipmates to hide in a fortified location where they can control specific MV Maersk Alabama engineering functions – should the hijackers reach the bridge. However, when Phillips is taken hostage along with a handful of unarmed crew members by Somali leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the Captain is forced into a series of life-threatening decisions in an effort to buy his crew time (and maybe even save his own life) as US Naval forces plan a rescue effort.
For the film adaptation, screenwriter Billy Ray drew from Phillips’ biographical retelling of the event (with co-author Stephan Talty), A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea. Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) sits in the director’s chair and, like much of his previous work, provides a tense and engaging big screen adaptation (as well as a lot of shaky cam) – one that is elevated even higher by a phenomenal performance from Tom Hanks as the film builds to an emotional climax.
Given that Captain Phillips is a biopic with a very well-known ending – one that relies heavily on suspense to drive an otherwise straightforward retelling – certain moviegoers may have trouble separating their familiarity with the subject from scene-to-scene tension. Yet, even for those who know the in and outs of the core narrative, Greengrass (aided by a solid cast) ensures that no character moment is wasted – with poignant as well as potent exchanges between the principle players.
Additionally, the various stages of the real-life hijacking and subsequent hostage event (which lasted four days in total) allows for a diverse batch of set piece movies moments – as the situation extends from the MV Maersk Alabama to US military operations. Greengrass moves effortlessly from intimate moments between Phillips and the Somali pirates to the efforts of US responders, weaving all of the threads into an exceptionally smart and captivating final act.
Even with three decades on film, Tom Hanks still manages to surprise in, arguably, one of his best performances to date. The first half of the movie paints Phillips as a no-nonsense Captain that has the brains (and the stones) to manage the hijacking situation and keep his crew out of harm’s way. Though, it is the second half that really enables Hanks to shine: chronicling the complicated dynamic between Captain and Somali captors as well as following Phillips as he begins to break down and genuinely fear for his life. It is fair to say that the final half-hour of Captain Phillips includes some of the most evocative work that Hanks has ever delivered for film.
In addition to Hanks, the success of the film rests heavily on first-time actor, Barkhad Abdi, playing Muse, the leader of the Somali pirate crew. A less ambitious adaptation would have simply written-off the four pirates as soulless villains but Greengrass, aided by Ray’s script (and Phillips’ intimate account), walks a very careful but impactful line – managing to both humanize the hijackers and hold them accountable for their violent actions. Abdi gets the majority of the screen time, shining in a number of key moments that are both haunting and fascinating. Supporting players Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali are also strong as the other three pirates, Bilal, Najee, and Elmi, respectively.
Greengrass includes a number of engrossing shots that help orient viewers to how these events unfolded, especially when the US Navy becomes involved, and sharp staging keeps on-screen drama exciting. That said, viewers who struggle with the director’s use of shaky cam in the Bourne series will likely be equally disoriented during a viewing of Captain Phillips. The choice is a credit to the experience, and keeps anxiety high, but there are virtually no-steady cam shots – and the added movement of ocean waves on top of shaky cam could mean a nauseating viewing for especially sensitive moviegoers. Overall, it’s a worthwhile trade-off but one that will, no doubt, discourage certain watchers who are on the fence.
Captain Phillips is also playing in IMAX format and offers tangible benefits for anyone willing to invest in premium tickets – though it is not essential this round. The IMAX sound and scale present further immersion than what you would get in a regular theater.
Greengrass and Hanks succeed in Captain Phillips with an astute and exciting action-thriller/biopic. Moviegoers who are interested in seeing the real-life MV Maersk Alabama story recreated on the big screen will likely be satisfied with the assembled package of clever filmmaking choices and a phenomenal pair of star performances.
If you’re still on the fence about Captain Phillips, check out the trailer below:
Captain Phillips runs 134 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use. Now playing in standard and IMAX theaters.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Captain Phillips episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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