‘Captain Phillips’ Is a Gripping, Award-Worthy Film

Tom Hanks plays a real-life captain whose ship is held captive by Somalian pirates. He and director Paul Greengrass discussed their new film in a post-screening Q&A. By Marlow Stern.

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On April 8, 2009, four Somali pirates wielding AK-47s boarded the Maersk Alabama, a shipping vessel steaming 240 miles off the coast of Somalia. The container ship, carrying 17,000 tons of cargo, including 5,000 tons of relief supplies for impoverished African nations, was en route to Mombasa, Kenya, and—in a rare turn of events—was an American vessel with a crew of 20 American seamen onboard, including its leader, Captain Richard Phillips.

The crew outsmarted the pirates, who were all between 17 and 19 years of age. Using what they later described as “brute force,” the Americans managed to capture the pirates’ leader, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, and attempted to negotiate an exchange with the remaining Somalis for Capt. Phillips. Things didn’t exactly go as planned.

Documentarian-turned-narrative filmmaker Paul Greengrass (United 93) has crafted a spellbinding, two-hour-plus dramatization of the Maersk hijacking in his survival saga Captain Phillips. The film is adapted from Phillips’ book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, produced by the team behind The Social Network, and stars Tom Hanks as the courageous captain.

The film opens with Phillips (Hanks), a graying, middle-aged sea captain, saying goodbye to his wife, Andrea, played by Catherine Keener. He worries for their son’s future. The dialogue is dicey (“Our son is a great boy…”) but it’s fleeting. Soon, Phillips the calm family man has transformed into Capt. Phillips, who is a major taskmaster—limiting the crew’s coffee breaks and running random emergency drills.

On a beach in the port city of Eyl, Somalia—a recruiting ground for piracy—a village elder, Hufan, appoints a group of young pirates to go on the hunt for shipping vessels. Hufan is under pressure from his overlord to provide ample booty. So, he appoints Muse (Barkhad Abdi) as leader of one pirate skiff, and a second young man as leader of another, and tasks them with bringing back millions. It is here where Greengrass exhibits why he’s the perfect filmmaker for this project. Thanks to his documentary filmmaking and journalist background, Greengrass grants even his villains ample perspective. This isn’t a black-and-white, good-versus-evil, Americans-versus-Other tale, but one with many shades of gray, and these young Somali pirates aren’t portrayed as nameless, character-less villains, but somewhat reluctant young criminals who are obligated to provide for their overlords, and view hijacking as just another job. “We’re fisherman,” Muse, the crew’s diplomatic leader, repeatedly says. “It’s business.”

The two pirate vessels head toward the Maersk and, after eluding the mind games of Capt. Phillips and evasive maneuvers, including hoses, four pirates—Muse and three others—make it onboard the ship. What transpires is a battle of wills between Capt. Phillips and the unarmed crew members, who are mostly locked inside the engine room, and the armed pirates.

Greengrass, purveyor of the shaky cam, and screenwriter Billy Ray, have paid enormous attention to detail here. Every tactical maneuver by the Maersk crew, as well as every level of the official channels, from the U.S. Maritime Administration to the Navy SEALs, is presented with striking realism—making the film in many ways a companion piece to Greengrass’ United 93 (crew vs. hijackers), as well as a spiritual cousin to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (bureaucracy/military intervention). And Greengrass’ handheld camera is perfect for this material, imbuing the proceedings with a docu-feel, and escalating the tension until the film’s wild finale (it never gets too shaky, a la the nausea-inducing Green Zone).

He’s also, along with Christopher Nolan, the best action director around. Scenes brim with tension thanks to their spot-on rendering, from the Somali Pirates’ tiny vessel dodging the giant ship’s water hoses to the Navy’s pursuit of Capt. Phillips once he’s taken hostage in a lifeboat. This is action on a grand scale that, despite its grittiness and naturalism, boasts very high production values.

“In the dramatizing of real events, there’s a spectrum: you can dramatize things loosely, or you can dramatize them closely, and it’s down to the filmmaker to set the parameters,” said Greengrass in a post-screening Q&A. “Me, given my background, I’m much more comfortable being closer to [reality]. But these events unfolded over four or five days, so you have the challenge of compression—how to compress these events, but stay true to the fundamentals. And I think we have.”

And Hanks, for his part, hasn’t flexed this kind of acting muscle since another survivor drama, 2000’s Cast Away. He completely embodies every facet of this real-life hero—the easygoing family man, the stern captain, the cunning captive, and the emotionally broken one. 

“I read [Phillips’] book prior to reading the screenplay, and I did get together with him on two occasions, and explained to him, ‘You know, I’ll say things you never said and be places you never were, but if we do this right, thematically, we’ll be spot-on with the nature of what happened, and how,’” said Hanks at a post-screening Q&A. “It’s a very environmental movie, shooting it more-or-less onboard an identical ship to the Alabama at sea in very small confines, so our task is to be true to the motivations of everybody that’s involved… Thematically, it is what happened.”

The last 15 minutes of the film sees Hanks go to a place of emotional rawness and vulnerability that we haven’t seen from him since maybe Philadelphia. Without giving anything away, he will have you floored. And Captain Phillips joins a host of other tremendous survival dramas coming out later this year set either at sea (All Is Lost), in space (Gravity), or in the Antebellum South (12 Years a Slave). These films, which have already been screened by The Daily Beast at various film festivals, will all likely yield acting nominations for their respective stars. At this point, the two frontrunners for the Best Actor Oscar are grizzled seamen—Robert Redford for his turn as a sailor lost at sea in All Is Lost, and now, Hanks for Captain Phillips. The end result is anybody’s guess.