Movie review: Captain Phillips

Movie audiences have viewed Disney’s take on the swash-buckling, rum-drinking pirates of old but there has yet to be a film that touched on the very real issue of modern day pirates terrorizing ships in the Indian Ocean. Until this fall.

Paul Greengrass, renowned director of Bourne Supremacy (and Identity) fame, brings us Captain Phillips, the true story of a maritime captain taken hostage at see by a gang of Somali pirates after their attempt at hijacking his cargo ship go awry. A large portion of the public that winds up seeing this film will no doubt enter the theater having heard very little about the seriousness of the issue that is brought to the forefront by Greengrass.

Greengrass’ film steers clear of a discourse about the general issue of modern day pirates i.e. the problems they create to cargo ships, commercial fishing vessels and even private yachts and what can or should be done to address it; instead Greengrass adheres closely to the story detailed in A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and dangerous days at sea.

In 2009, a small band of Somali pirates manage to board U.S. cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama captained by one Richard Phillips. Phillips does everything in his power to stave off the attempted hijacking, but is unsuccessful as his ship carries nothing more than water hoses as defense mechanisms. After gaining access to the ship and taking custody of the commanding officers including Capt. Phillips, the Somali pirate gang led by a leader named Muse, seem unsure of what to do next.

In their attempt to secure the ship, the pirate gang is thwarted by the crew and forced to strike a deal to escape unharmed. The deal is designed to be a mutual parting of the ways as this crew of union shippers desires only to return home safely, but doesn’t go as planned as the pirates again make an ill-advised decision — they escape with Capt. Phillips in their custody.

More than two days away from the Somali coast aboard a life vessel that can’t travel faster than five nautical miles an hour and without food, very little water — this film becomes about the survival of all five men now trapped together on the small, toy-like lifeboat.

A story that began as one about money — a crew doing its job to deliver cargo where it has been bought and paid for, a gang of pirates chasing a score — becomes one about reaching home safely. For now the situation has escalated and all parties involved are in very real jeopardy. Everything is not going to be OK, despite the constant assurances Muse offers Capt. Phillips.

Greengrass does a masterful job of drawing us into the characters of the rival captains, Phillips and Muse, both caring deeply about their homes and their duty. Tom Hanks, playing Capt. Phillips, is a stern captain but one caught out of his element facing an armed band of pirates. He wears his emotions on his face easily, yet maintains the courage to protect the life of every last member of his crew before his own. Hanks is especially good in the end as tensions build and the SEAL team moves in.

On the other side is Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi, a captain himself who is courageous yet calculating. No person of his field has successfully hijacked a U.S. cargo ship in over 200 years but somehow he manages to do it with a crew of three. The audience discovers a man who seemingly had little choice of what to become growing up in Somalia and only desires to make a better life for himself. And while Greengrass is careful to not let soft-hearted American viewers grow too attached to the young, impoverished pirates, it is hard not to have a touch of empathy for their situation. Of course, they chose it for themselves but then again, how much control did they have?

In the end, it is all about standard operating procedure. The cargo ship led by Capt. Phillips had a strict standard operating procedure that resulted in a safe ship and crew. The Navy maintained a strict standard operating procedure that allowed them to bring the situation to a successful conclusion. The pirates? No standard operating procedure and thus, no positive outcome.

Rating: *** (3 stars)

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