Captain Phillips-a film dramatizing the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009-begins in Vermont, 7,500 miles from the Horn of Africa, as Captain Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks) prepares to leave home for his shipping duties halfway around the world. Obvious and overstated foreshadowing make the first 30 minutes of the movie undoubtedly the film’s weakest part-luckily, its greatest strength is that it improves continually for all 134 minutes, ending in rousing and powerful performances by both Hanks and his costars.
As Phillips’ wife (Catherine Keener) drives him to the airport for his flight, the two share a ridiculously overdone, embarrassingly uncomfortable conversation. They discuss how “the world is changing,” and how their children are entering a world much different than the one in which they grew up. The lines are clunky and cliched-so bad, in fact, that it almost feels like Hanks doesn’t want to deliver them. Hanks’ adoption of a New England accent, though accurately conveyed, sounds strange coming from the same man that portrayed Forrest Gump, and distracts in some ways from the movie early on.
While the name Captain Phillips implies a film about a single man, director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) spends nearly as much time on the pirate leader, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), as he does on Phillips. Greengrass, in one of the film’s greatest successes, does not treat the hijackers as obvious antagonists in a childish interpretation of good and bad, but rather does an excellent job, however briefly, of illustrating the economic and social motivations that encourage young Somalis to turn from fishing to pirating shipping vessels. Had Greengrass spent a bit more time distinguishing the Somali pirates from one another in their earliest scene, allowing the viewer to identify differently with each of the characters more fully, the later drama would have been all the more powerful.
Either way, the humanity and struggles of the Somali men, coupled with an outstanding breakthrough performance by Abdi, result in emotional turmoil that takes Captain Phillips beyond a simple action film to a critical analysis of foreign policy and global inequality. Muse first laments the rich international fishing companies that make Somali seas barren, causing widespread starvation and poverty in his home country. At one point, Phillips questions Muse, asking how anyone could turn to piracy-surely there must be some other way to make a living-to which Muse responds powerfully: “Maybe in America,” sparking at least a twinge of guilt in the heart of any socially conscious viewer.
As the plot moves along from the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama to Phillips’ later capture as a hostage in one of the ship’s lifeboats, the performances by all of the actors in the film improve steadily. Coupled with an outstanding score by Henry Jackman, the film’s action creates a growing intensity that mounts until the film’s nearly perfectly-constructed climax.
The last 60 minutes of the film (and particularly the very last 15 minutes) are some of the best to have been released in the past decade. Greengrass’ use of the handheld camera that garnered him acclaim in previous works produces a pseudo-documentary feel that pervades the film, bringing the viewer directly into the action and heightening the already intense mood. As Hanks and his captors interact in the cramped lifeboat, the handheld cameras contribute to both a literal sense of claustrophobia and a metaphorical sense, as the captors are continually left with fewer and fewer options, trapped by their actions in a stalemate with no obvious mutually-beneficial resolution.
The film’s greatest moments come at the very end, as Phillips, now rescued, is brought to the sickbay of the USS Bainbridge. With pure, heart-wrenching emotion, Phillips struggles to recount his injuries, bringing the pure shock of his experience to the forefront. The film’s early inadequacies fall away as Hanks portrays Phillips’ emotions with Oscar-worthy perfection. The film leaves no loose ends untied, providing a packaged, complete story that weaves together many storylines, leaving viewers questioning the short-fallings of the world and their place in it.