Paul Greengrass is a master of building tension. With the terrific Bourne trilogy, the moving United 93, and now the tightly-wound Captain Phillips, he’s proven with the latter two that he has the ability to make a film based on true events as unnerving and exciting as anything we see in fiction. The movie centers on Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), a family man who is about to lead the Maersk Alabama around the southern coast of Africa, one of the most dangerous areas in the world for cargo ships. Even though an American liner hasn’t been hijacked in over 200 years, there is still the fear of Somali pirates taking over the ship due to reports coming in over various outlets and the lack of provisions they carry on the ship. The hoses that can sink incoming ships only do so much damage, and the lack of weaponry on the carrier doesn’t help matters, either. When Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his men come on a mission and get onto the ship, there’s not much Phillips and his crew can do but follow their orders.
How can a film based on a true story that so many people are familiar with keep an audience engaged for 134 minutes? Through remarkable editing and cinematography, along with some damn fine lead performances from Hanks and Abdi. For those who don’t know much about the story, I suppose you should quit reading now for fear of potential spoilers, even if these are real events that were reported all over the news. Alas, Phillips is taken hostage on the orange, enclosed life raft that the ship carries. Realizing the extent of the situation, and the need to rescue Phillips before he reaches the Somali coast (where he’ll either be used as ransom or killed), the U.S. Navy and SEAL teams work together to ensure the safe rescue of the Captain. Greengrass navigates both of these paths with ease, bringing us out of the claustrophobic life raft to the wide expanses of the sea as the snipers prepare to take out the captors.
Tom Hanks’s performance at the center of the film is one of his most impressive. He conveys most of his emotion through nervous glances and genuine concern for his well-being, but most of what he says is composed and veiled. There’s a fragility to every movement he makes, for we fear his life at any given moment. Hanks has that pull that so many of us identify with: we’ve seen him work wonders and carry films like Forrest Gump and Cast Away based on the emotion he infuses into the characters. Here, with Rich Phillips, he provides a poignancy, particularly in the film’s closing moments. We see the desire to reach his family, the loss of faith, the helplessness as he’s gagged and bound with a gun to his head. I rarely shed tears during films, but those final fifteen minutes cut to my core. That’s a testament to his brave performance.
A standout is Barkhad Abdi, playing Muse as a young man on a mission that may not be his choice. As a Somalian, he’s ravaged by poverty and forced into a situation that requires him to rob Americans to secure a prosperous future. There is an underlying theme that rightfully gets addressed: as Americans, we don’t consider how difficult it is for others to achieve our level of prosperity and wealth. “Maybe in America,” Muse mentions to Phillips as he’s attempting to plea for them to surrender; they’ll get what they want, Phillips says. Abdi plays the villain here, but he’s given a sense of humanity that most films wouldn’t care for. We still root for Phillips, and as the ending nears we get a sense that the message here is more than “America is awesome!” There’s a density, one that could’ve been made more effective by trimming about fifteen minutes from the center of the film. Nonetheless, Greengrass’s film is efficient, calculated, and thrilling.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)