“Captain Phillips” is a gripping thriller tightly holding our attention as it is relentlessly sailing on its tumultuous course. Rigorously maintaining its realistic approach to the story and the characters based on a real-life hijacking incident, the movie forcefully accumulates the tension on the screen through its intense heart-pounding moments packed with an ample amount of verisimilitude, and we cannot help but watch how its plain hero and his captors come into their increasingly impossible circumstance which will not be resolved easily at all.
The movie opens with Captain Richard Phillips(Tom Hanks) preparing to leave for his work abroad at his home in US. While he is going to the airport with his wife(Catherine Keener in a brief appearance), we get a little background information about him and his current state during his short conversation with his wife. He does not like to work outside US, and his job puts more difficulty on their live than they expected, but he does his job as demanded by his company: going to a port in Oman and taking the command of MV Maersk Alabama, which is ready for its sail to Mombasa, Kenya after fully loaded with its cargos.
Meanwhile, we also observe a group of Somalian pirates in some poor beach village on the coast of Somalia. As soon as they are ordered by a local warlord, a former fisherman Muse(Barkhad Abdi) and other pirates go out to the sea with their skiff boats. Searching for any suitable target on the sea, they come to target Maersk Alabama, and their approaching boats are soon detected by the radar on the ship on April 8th, 2009.
Phillips is well aware of this kind of danger prevalent in his sail course, and he does as much as he can do for blocking them with various measures including water hoses, but his ship is eventually taken by the pirates. At least, thanks to his quick response, most of his crew safely hide inside the ship, though Phillips and two other crew members are held as the hostages by Muse and his gangs.
From that point, the story develops into a volatile situation of constant threats and persuasions exchanged between Phillips and Muse, who casually nicknamed him “Irish”. The director Paul Greengrass and his dependable crew including the cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and the editor Christopher Rouse keep the tension crackling on the screen; while shaky handheld camera is abundantly used throughout the film and this may feel distracting at first, this approach amply provides the quickening rhythm of urgency pulling us into the perilous circumstances depicted in the film. The hijacking sequence is lean and dynamic enough to create the sense of imminent emergency, and the movie becomes more suspenseful as Muse searches for the crew members hiding inside the ship and Phillips carefully tries to outwit his opponent, and the suspense level in the film gets further increased as it focuses on the grueling uneasiness surrounding Phillips and his captors later in the story.
While there have been controversies on whether Phillips was indirectly responsible for the hijacking incident(there was even a lawsuit on his negligence of safety during the incident), Billy Ray’s screenplay, which is based on “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” written by Stephen Talty and Phillips himself, presents Phillips as an ordinary guy doing his job and duty as a professional in spite of the enormous pressure on him, and Tom Hanks effectively dials down his star presence to embody the role in his understated but powerful performance which will probably get him an Oscar nomination in the next year. Phillips maintains a calm, stable, and sensible attitude on the surface while he is threatened by the gun-toting pirates, but we gradually sense increasing agitation and desperation barely contained behind his face as the time goes by, and Hanks is terrific to watch when his character should be more careful and tactful in dealing with the dangerous and unpredictable guys who can shoot him at any moment.
The other supporting actors also give credible natural performances along with Hanks without stepping out of their lines, and the special mention must go to Barkhad Abdi and other three actors playing Somalian pirates(Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali), who did a good job despite their lack of acting experience before appearing in this movie. Muse and his gangs are indeed the bad guys of the story, but, while they are surely brutal and violent, the movie presents them as the human beings driven to crime and violence by their poor environment. They become scared and cornered as much as their captive as their situation is getting in way over their heads, and that makes them more dangerous than before.
After US Navy comes into the picture, the movie heads into the expected point, but its tension level still remains high during the climactic scene reminiscent of “Zero Dark Thirty”(2012). It eventually culminates to the nail-biting moment which has been dreaded by both Phillips and the pirates, and Greengrass, who has built considerable reputation as an intelligent action film director through “The Bourne Supremacy”(2004) and “The Bourne Ultimatum”(2007), gives us a clear picture of what is going on at the different spots in the murky background as the movie busily goes back and forth between them under his taut, precise direction.
On the whole, “Captain Phillips” is a superlative thriller pulsating with nerve-cracking intensity. Like Greengrass’ gut-wrenching masterpiece “United 93”(2006), it never stops once everything is set and ready after its rather slow but economic beginning, and it is thankfully devoid of usual Hollywood heroics while presenting the powerful moments of human vulnerability and resilience under extreme pressure during its many high points. The movie also captures a few nice character moments when it becomes relaxed a bit at times, and there is a scene indirectly suggesting the tragic side of the circumstance of Phillips and his captors in a wider view. “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people,” says Phillips while trying to persuade them to be more reasonable. Muse curtly replies to him; “Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America.”
Sidenote: while watching the movie, I was reminded of a Danish film “A Hijacking”(2012), which I incidentally watched around two months ago. While there are some overlapping areas between them due to their shared subject, they are a lot different from each other in many aspects because they respectively set out to do each own things from the start, and both of them are excellent works. It will be a very interesting, if not exhausting, experience to you if you are willing to watch them together.