Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray based on the book by Richard Phillips & Stephan Talty.
Starring: Tom Hanks (Captain Richard Phillips), Barkhad Abdi (Muse), Barkhad Abdirahman (Bilal), Faysal Ahmed (Najee), Mahat M. Ali (Elmi), Michael Chernus (Shane Murphy), Catherine Keener (Andrea Phillips), David Warshofsky (Mike Perry), Corey Johnson (Ken Quinn), Chris Mulkey (John Cronan), Yul Vazquez (Captain Frank Castellano), Max Martini (SEAL Commander), Omar Berdouni (Nemo), Mohamed Ali (Asad), Issak Farah Samatar (Hufan).
The scenes that open and close Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips are what elevate the film above the level of a typical thriller. For the vast majority of its running time, Captain Phillips is the type of intelligent, intense, well-crafted thriller that we have come to expect from Greengrass since his breakthrough film Bloody Sunday (2002) – through his 9/11 film United 93 (2006), the second and third Bourne movies, and his Iraq war film Green Zone. Greengrass is one of the few directors who is able to use handheld camera work and rapid fire editing, and still keep everything clear for an audience. Where someone like Michael Bay often tries to do the same thing, the result is often action sequences that are incoherent – but I have never felt that way in a Greengrass movie. He uses the same approach in Captain Phillips – and it’s even more effective here than in his previous films. But as good as the majority of the runtime of the movie is, it really remains the opening and closing of the film that deepens the work as a whole – and makes it into more than just a well done, intense thriller.
The story of Captain Phillips is well known by now. He was the Captain of an American cargo ship – the Alabama Maersk – in 2009, when off the coast of Somalia, his boat is attacked by two skiffs containing four, armed Somali pirates. They are able to outflank the pirates on their first attempt, but the next day when they try again, they are unable to do so. The four men board the ship, and because no one on the ship is armed, they quickly take over. The majority of the crew hides below deck, while Phillips and his officers are stuck in the control room with the pirates. They don’t just want the $30,000 they have on board – they think that taking over an American ship should net them millions. After an intense few hours, the pirates agree to leave the ship in the rickety, enclosed lifeboat – but take Phillips with them. The Marines are called in – one way or another, Phillips and his captors are not going to reach Somalia.
Because Greengrass cast Tom Hanks as Phillips, we know almost immediately that he is a good guy – but Greengrass establishes this anyway in the opening scene, where his wife (Catherine Keener) drives him to the airport. As they drive, they talk about the worries they have for their children – whether they’ll work hard enough in school, whether they’ll find a good job, etc. Everything seems to move so fast, and is so competitive, that they worry their kids won’t have the same advantages they had. Greengrass then does an interesting – and bold thing – as he cuts immediately from Phillips and his wife, to Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the pirates who will take over his ship, in Somalia. Just like Greengrass immediately establishes sympathy and humanity with Phillips in his brief opening scene, he does the same thing for Muse and the other pirates in Somalia. What choice do these men have, other than to do what they do? They are ruled by brutal warlords who demand they go out and make money. If they don’t, they’re doomed anyway. Right off the bat, Greengrass has established the complex moral world his movie takes place in by establishing the humanity of all the players. This will not just be an easy thriller about good guys and bad guys, but something far more complex.
The film is impeccably made by Greengrass. Normally, I don’t like the shaky handheld camera work, and rapid fire editing that Greengrass specializes in. However, I do think that Greengrass uses it better than any other director working right now – and here, it aids him immensely in his storytelling. As the majority of the action takes place in the small lifeboat, which rocks over the waves in the ocean, and the shaky camera work places us right alongside the characters – it immerses us in the situation, and helps to generate tension throughout.
The film is also aided immensely by the performances – particularly those by Hanks and Abdi. Abdi is a newcomer, who is asked to hold his own next to Hanks – and he is more than up to the task. His Muse is intelligent and thoughtful – more so than his accomplices, two of whom seem like little more than scared kids, and the third who is more brutal and violent. To him, this is a business transaction – nothing more – and while he is not above using violence, he doesn’t see much point in it if it can be helped. It is a dynamic debut performance. Hanks is one of the most likable, and relatable actors in movie history, and his Captain Phillips makes the most of the association we have with the actor before walking into the theater. His Phillips is heroic, but in a more subdued way than most heroes in a thriller would be. He does what he can to protect his crew once they have been boarded, and he even does what he can to help the pirates themselves on the boat. He doesn’t want anyone to die, but he knows full well that if the pirates don’t give up, they will be doomed – and they may well take him with him. It is a fine performance throughout the movie – but becomes a great one in the film’s closing scenes. Those scenes, details of which I won’t reveal here, are the type of scenes that normally do not happen in a thriller of this sort. Normally, once the action climax of the film has passed, the movie ends – this one extends it beyond that point, and gives us a view of the shock and trauma we normally never see. It is in these moments where the full weight of the movie hits us the hardest – and elevates the entire movie.
Captain Phillips is an uncommonly complex moral movie. Yes, Captain Phillips is undeniably a good guy, and the pirates are the “bad guys”, but things are not that simple. Audiences are conditioned to root for Americans in the movies, and against the invaders – and some will undoubtedly still do the same thing when they watch Captain Phillips. And yet, this is not a film where everything is quite so simple. I am reminded of the moment in Greengrass’ United 93, when he cuts back and forth between the passengers on the plane praying to God, and the two hijackers praying to Allah, drawing the similarity between the two of them – no matter if you’re the “good guy” or the “bad guy” you are praying to God when the end comes. Captain Phillips takes this link between the two even farther, making for a much more complex than a typical thriller. If you want a thriller – than Captain Phillips more than fits the bill – this is one of the most intense movies of the year. But it is also more than that. Most thrillers, you forget by the time you hit the parking lot. You won’t be able to shake Captain Phillips quite that easily.