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Review: Captain Phillips – Merchant mariner mayhem off Mogadishu

Posted by on October 11, 2013 – 12:03 am

Captain PhillipsTom Hanks returns for more adventure on the high-seas with the film Captain Phillips, the true life story about the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama merchant vessel and the kidnaping of the titular character by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Even though you might be familiar with the 2009 events that this movie is based on, the film still manages to be a suspenseful thriller with an outstanding performance by Hanks.

On April 8, 2009, Somali pirates managed to overtake the United States merchant vessel, Maersk Alabama, and then escape with the ship’s Captain Phillips, who they intended to hold for millions of dollars in ransom – that is until the full weight of the US military stepped in and miraculously managed to save the Captain from his ordeal.

In many ways this movie reminded me of Zero Dark Thirty, in that for the last third of the film we see the US Navy SEALS doing what they do best, which is professionally performing the impossible, like it was just another day at the office. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a world that is best viewed from the safety of a theater seat.

Who knows what the real Captain Phillips is like, but Tom Hanks is awesome in the titular role, playing a character who is not really likeable, but who is extremely competent and efficient at doing his job – and because it’s Hanks, you can help but feel sympathy for him, even before his ship is boarded by the ruthless pirates.

Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips

Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips

As good as Hanks is in this film – and he is very good – his performance is overshadowed by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who plays, Muse, the bold leader of the band of pirates. This first time actor was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, but was reportedly living in Minneapolis as a limo driver when he was cast in this film. His portrayal of Muse is monstrously menacing and audacious, but somehow he still manages to elicit a certain amount of weird sympathy for the character as well. There are a lot of films to see before Academy Award time arrives, but I would not be surprised to see an Oscar nomination for Abdi’s performance.

Captain Phillips was directed by Paul Greengrass, whose resume includes a couple of the Bourne films, as well as the 9/11 thriller, United 93 (2006). He’s a perfect fit for telling this real-life drama that is based on the book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, by Captain Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty. The Captain Phillips screenplay was written by Billy Ray, who also penned The Hunger Games movie.

I like that Greengrass spends some time in the pirates’ shoes, so to speak, showing the motivation and predicament that leads them to attempt to tackle a giant merchant vessel. Their shrewdness and daring is actually very fascinating. But it’s even more fascinating that ships are sailing through the waters off the Somali coast without any weapons other than fire hoses – which seems like a really dumb idea.

Captain PhillipsThere is a crazy long shot in Captain Phillips that has the tiny lifeboat with the Captain and the Somali pirates inside, surrounded by three gigantic Navy ships, one of them an aircraft carrier, and it’s an amazing visual that displays how much damage, be it physical or financial, a small handful of uncivilized numbskulls can cause. Is it just going to be one lone idiot than finally brings the world to its knees?

In current news, there is actually a lawsuit against the real Captain Phillips, filed by members of his crew who are saying that he put their lives in danger by negligently piloting their ship into dangerous waters in the first place. Nevertheless, Captain Phillips is an intense and finely crafted film that is highly recommended. Grade: 8/10

Photos © 2013 Columbia Pictures