‘Captain Phillips’: Harrowing, effective

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Tom Hanks, left, and Barkhad Abdirahman star in Columbia Pictures' Captain Phillips. (Jasin Boland/Columbia Pictures)

Captain Richard Phillips had a job to do: to move the container ship Maersk Alabama through treacherous waters to its destination. A group of Somali pirates also had a job to do: taking control of the Maersk and extract payment from either the ship itself or its owners. When those two jobs ran into each other, the result was a real-life drama in 2009 and now, on movie screens, the film Captain Phillips.

Tom Hanks stars as Phillips, a no-nonsense New England ship’s captain who finds himself and his crew at the mercy of a Somali pirate, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Adapted from Phillips’ memoir by screenwriter Billy Ray, and directed by Paul Greengrass, the movie is a grim, tension-filled production that can unsettle audiences even if they know the outcome.

Part of the credit for that goes to Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum), who knows well how to wring excitement out of tightly contained spaces — the movie is at its most dramatic when Phillips and the pirates are in a small lifeboat. Violence is unflinchingly portrayed. In addition, Ray’s script takes care to humanize the pirates, especially Muse.

This is not to say that it drains them of menace, or makes them sympathetic; rather, it makes clear that, coming from impoverished lives and with bosses to answer to, the pirates have to either finish their job or risk loss and punishment. To avoid that, they are willing to kill anyone who resists. And that makes them the pure opposite of Phillips, whose primary goal is not to kill the pirates but to protect his crew and his ship from harm, even if that means putting his own life at risk. The pirates have the weapons, and the savvy gained in previous hijackings. Phillips must rely almost entirely on his wits even as Muse warns him against trying any tricks.

Equally responsible for the dramatic success of the film are Hanks and Abdi. Hanks, of course, is a two-time Oscar winner and well-liked person whose casting brings a measure of sympathy to any role. But he is quite willing to show a somewhat chilly side to Phillips, and a work ethic that exceeds that of most of his crew. (More than once he questions the time the other men spend drinking coffee.) Once the pirates arrive, Hanks’ face shows constant calculation as Phillips looks for the best ways out of a situation that offers no easy solution; for example, the ship has some cash on it, but hardly enough to placate people used to ransoms in the millions. And, at the end of the film, in its most powerful moment, the strain of all that has happened to Phillips is finally, marvelously revealed.

Abdi, meanwhile, is a genuinely new face on film — born in Somalia but living in the U.S. since his teens, he makes his acting debut in Captain Phillips and a marvelous one it is. Abdi’s Muse is more than able to go head-to-head against Hanks’ Phillips. He is ruthless but controlled (unlike some of his team), as ready to adjust to circumstances as Phillips is — as long as the pirates get their money in the end. “No al-Qaida here,” he tells Phillips. “Just business.” But, like Phillips, he also knows that the job has to be done: “I come too far,” he tells Phillips late in their drama. “I can’t give up.”

While the duel between Muse and Phillips is closely observed, Captain Phillips is just as interesting visually as the saga unfolds, not only in the suspenseful maneuvers on the Maersk Alabama but in later scenes as the full military might of America is pitted against the Somalis in the lifeboat. As with the hijacking itself, the pirates have relied on the notion that they can succeed with their small numbers and resources because the other side will not resist. Only Phillips does, and things do reach the point where Phillips, Muse and the U.S. military have all indeed gone “too far” to give up.

While the film follows fact closely for the most part, there is dramatic license. Phillips, for that matter, told the Boston Globe that he did not care for the title because “it takes away from the fact that it wasn’t just Captain Phillips on that ship, it was the crew, too. They were instrumental in [creating] a positive outcome for them and myself.”

At the same time, the Globe said that some crew members have sued the ship’s owner, though not Phillips, arguing that the company and Phillips risked their lives in the choice of route and lack of security. While the movie does show some tactical disagreement between captain and crew, Phillips has shrugged off the suits as a money grab.

In any case, Captain Phillips is for the most part quite impressive as a movie. It does stretch long in spots, especially as the voyage begins, but not enough to ruin the overall experience. And it has the more than memorable performances by Hanks and Abdi.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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