Captain Phillips is a thoughtful thriller

Paul Greengrass’s latest Captain Phillips examines the true story of a U.S. cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates.

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is a film that doesn’t pull any punches. Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) has crafted a taut thriller out of the real-life hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship in 2009 by Somali pirates, one that retains a strong emotional core while still being a slick Hollywood action film.

The opening of the film quickly works to set up the dichotomy between Captain Phillips, played by everyman Tom Hanks, and Muse, the head of the Somali pirate crew, portrayed by Barkhad Abdi, in his first acting role. Phillips is shown leaving his suburban Vermont home with his wife (Catherine Keener) in preparation for his upcoming voyage on the massive cargo ship that will take him and his crew through the dangerous Horn of Africa, an area prone to pirate attacks. Meanwhile, Muse and a group of young men are gathered on the beach in Somalia, assembling teams to scour the nearby waters in search of a ship to hijack.

Once Muse and his crew set their sights on Captain Phillips’s ship, the odds seem insurmountable: two tiny motor boats versus Phillip’s enormous beast of a ship. While one team decides to cut its losses, Muse frantically pushes his men forward, and they eventually force themselves onto the hull.

For their safety, Phillips has instructed his crew to hide throughout the ship, while Muse tries to reason with him, claiming that there is “No Al-Qaeda here. Just business.” Yet, as Phillips’s men fight back against the pirates, the threats and violence continue to escalate, leading to a drawn-out battle of wits between Phillips, Muse’s increasingly volatile crew and the Navy, sent in to ensure that the captured Phillips is not brought onto Somali soil.

Greengrass does an admirable job of not simply painting the hijackers as a group of one-dimensional thugs. While their motivations are obviously financial, Muse attempts to justify their actions to Phillips as the last resort of those left with no other options, insisting that the local fish that support their countrymen have been decimated by Western ships constantly passing by their waters.

Barkhad Abdi is appropriately intense as the leader of the Somali pirates, alternately charming when he insists on referring to Phillips as “Irish” in his clipped English, yet frightening in his anger as he obsessively tries to complete their mission at all costs.

Superstar status aside, Hanks is also convincing as the strained captain trying to keep his crew alive in the midst of a completely chaotic situation. He may not agree with the hijacker’s motives, but his essential humanity shines through in his various attempts to hammer home alternative scenarios for pirates, in a frantic attempt to avoid any bloodshed on either side.

Even though we can assume the outcome from the start, Captain Phillips is still an incredibly tense and visceral film, made all the more powerful because of its uncompromising look at the true effects of violence. It may have all the hallmarks of a traditional thriller, but the basic class struggle at its core will stay with you long after those final moments. ■


Captain Phillips opens today

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