Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener, Faysal Ahmed, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, Max Martini, Omar Berdouni, Mohamed Ali, Barkhad Abdirahman, Mahat M. Ali and Issak Farah Samatar
Paul Greengrass makes excellent thrillers, his films have the kind of energy and jolts that many action films lack. Once again, Greengrass directs a film based on a true story. The screenplay is written by Billy Ray which is based on the book, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea", written by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. It tells the account of the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009 where Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. The distinctive quality of this particular feature is that it tries to go beyond the typical depiction of true events to really show how and why the two worlds collided in such a way. It isn't always successful in doing that though, sometimes the film loses the thrill for more character building while in other parts, it feels like a standard Hollywood action film at its best. I did ended up liking it a lot but not as much as I was hoping for. Nevertheless, Captain Phillips is one of the better Hollywood films of the year. So it begins with an entire section that really felt like the weakest point to me. Richard Phillips (Hanks) on his way to airport to leave for Oman from where he will sail. There is a cameo by Catherine Keener who plays Phillips' wife and a short conversation that spells out what this film truly wants to talk about. It is one of the most lazily written and quite frankly, unbelievable depiction of a married couple that I have seen. They are both worried about the changing times, the advancement and ever reducing opportunities for youngsters. How there is more competition now than it ever was and how the children need to be more smarter, careful and attentive because of that. Phillips is worried for his son who is not really concentrating on his studies and for his own job as well. I didn't have a problem with the conversation itself as much as how it felt so out-of-place. And of course, how in such a bland way Keener was utilized. The portrayal of the couple's marital life should have been more drawn or just completely left out.
The film slowly picks up as Phillips reaches his destination, he walks around the ship and checks out everything. He takes command and they begin sailing through the Gulf of Aden on their way to Mombasa. It is not entirely smooth sailing of course, they are not aware of the pirate activity that is just about to happen. That part of sea is notorious for such things as these incidents have happened in the past. Phillips himself knows about it so he makes sure the ship will be safe if they get attacked. He makes sure of the vessels, precautionary measures and training exercises. On the other hand, a group of Somali pirates are preparing to sail off as well. Their introduction is something we rarely see in such films where our 'villains' come out of nowhere or they are introduced in a pretty short-sighted way. It is quite clearly noticeable that they are capable enough of carrying off such tasks in whatever way they can. How poorly they live but they have access to the arms and ammunition. We see the first glimpse of Abduwali Muse (Abdi) who is later going to lead his fellow pirates. So during one of the training exercises, the pirates attack but Phillips is able to outrun them. Then they return later in faster skiffs, better prepared and eventually board and take control of Maersk Alabama. Captain Phillips tries his very best with his crew to make sure it doesn't come to this but it does. He however is very capable of keeping a cool mind in stressful situation and thinking very clearly. Even when Muse takes control of the ship, Phillips is able to keep him and his men away from the important areas of his ships. The engine room for example where he has already ordered most of his crew to hide. For some reason, all of this build-up (minus the scenes where Pirates are battling it out to somehow board the ship) felt really procedural to me, like they lacked the otherwise urgency that the rest of the film has. I know these are very annoying and minute complains that I have but I don't really have much else to say about the film. The flaws that Captain Phillips had didn't really get in the way though because the overall experience was quite good. They don't add up to much because once the film sets off, you wont really think a lot about the first quarter of the film. But as I write this review, my mind keeps constantly going back to what Captain Phillips lacked and what it didn't in equal amount. It was the importance the story itself that kept me going when I was watching the film. Thankfully, Greengrass has made a very good action thriller that might have been something else if it was directed by someone else.
The film really sets off once a crucial plot development happens where Phillips finds himself on the mercy of those pirates. As the initial plan of the pirates fail, they take Phillips as their hostage in hope for exchanging him for a ransom. The kind of atmosphere Greengrass is able to create in that tiny lifeboat is what kept me on the edge of my seat. The remaining portion of the story is the best part of the film itself. Fear and panic sets in, then more fear and more panic is created. I really applaud the writer and most importantly, Greengrass for making us viewers so uncomfortable during that entire large chunk of running time. I was familiar with this particular hijacking incident, I have read about it before but of course not in such details. Still the film kept me in such a place where I forgot that I knew the story itself already. Each new development had as much impact on me as it would have had when I was reading the account of Phillips himself. It is the sheer cinematic significance that any true story gets that really makes us viewers experience all the things that we know about, in equally compelling way as if we are learning or experiencing them for the first time. Comparison of such feeling I could make to the 2012 masterful film, "Zero Dark Thirty". Not the film itself of course but those final moments. I also liked how those Somali pirates were treated in the film and how they were given a narrative as well. Greengrass never wants to justify their acts or what has been going on as much as he ends up showing why? There are some strong dialogues and small conversations that Muse has with Phillips. Whether it is the scene where Muse tells Phillips how he can't go back or the part where he indirectly ends up commenting on what global capitalism has done to them. These days, there are more opportunities because they can be created in whichever ways possible. The world is more connected and vast now than it ever was. But while one is going forward with something, they don't realize that they are stepping on somebody to get where they want to be. It's a race, the deadly kind. You need to outsmart and overthrow to get ahead in your life. The rich are getting richer and the rest have to work their ass off, yet their condition keeps on getting worse. But if you step on someone's territory, you will pay for it as well.
Tom Hanks gives one of the better performances of his career. Though for the most part, he maintains a certain calmness in his performance with not much range. The accent and the persona of the movie star himself seems to not bother much because he literally makes you believe that he is your everyday man. But it is towards the end when you realize how that quality is the reason you got attached to the character. The emotional fireworks sets off in a way that I wasn't expecting. Those final few minutes when Phillips faces the horror of being killed and never being rescued, between hope and the loss of it, followed by his sheer bafflement and confusion really affects. The much appreciated and lauded ending where the medical staff is treating Phillips after being rescued is one of the most heartbreaking and emotionally devastating scenes of the year. Hanks is vulnerable as he has never been in depicting the horror that his character just went through. The fact that he spent so much time with the people who could have done anything to him but understood why they were doing that. But on more personal level, how he couldn't imagine ever meeting his family or stepping out of this situation alive. How four people were killed right in front of him. How he was covered in their blood. The mix of emotions, fear, relieve and joy single-handedly creates the kind of moment that the audience can connect to themselves. The ending made me cry as well, a lot. And I could imagine many other people doing the same. One of Tom Hanks' best performances where he is able to fully transform himself into another person to make us connect with the character and how he is able to give an emotionally moving performance in the latter part of the film. They used amateur Somalian actors for the roles of the pirates here. The one standout among them is obviously Barkhad Abdi. As Abduwali Muse, Abdi is both an angry young man and one that anybody can really tap into. The way he talks is never one-tone dialogue delivery. The way he reacts to situations is quite amazing. He has some really good moments in the film where he shows what he is capable of as an actor and I am really happy he got the chance to showcase his talents and give one of the best supporting performance of the year.
Captain Phillips is very successful in making the characters distinguish in the way that they come off as quite believable. The many face offs, fights, talks aren't your standard action film hero-villain stuff but they show how normal human beings would act or react in such awful circumstances. It is action thriller but a tragic drama as well. On the surface it does comment on the economic crisis and how on both fronts, people find their way through. It is these aspects that sets this film apart and perhaps impressed me despite my slight reservations in the beginning. The editing of the film is quite well done for the most part. The score that is provided is very appreciable as well. The sound effects of the film are one of the best aspects of it. The sound of merciless sea and the ships, the many semi-war like situations or the piercing silence of the claustrophobic insides of lifeboat, the sound design is effective. The ever recognizable and a highlight of Greengrass' work, the shaky cam is there as well to even further make you sea-sick. The cinematography is done quite good. The tensed closeups of the characters are very well used in the film. Captain Phillips is written in a way that it is able to talk its way out, which works for the most part. The director is able to create many moments of utter suspense. The audience are thrown in the midst of all that and we feel like a part of these clashes at rough seas. Captain Phillips is about two different parts of the world that exists together but still apart. What connects them both is what sets them apart as well. It is about people and nations caught in economic currents. About individuals who are fighting their own wars.