(2013) True Life Drama (Columbia) Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Omar Berdouni, Mohamed Ali, Issak Farah Samatar, Angus MacInnes, Amr El-Bayoumi, Stacha Hicks, Maria Dizzia, Georgia Goodman. Directed by Paul Greengrass
Most of us at one time or another will face a situation that will put our resolve to the test. Who we are and where our moral compass points to are defined by those moments. Few of us however will face that moment in a life or death situation where not only our own lives hang in the balance but other lives as well.
Richard Phillips (Hanks) of Vermont is a ship captain, a man used to commanding a merchant vessel filled with cargo, transporting it from one spot in the world to another. He’s not overly fond of the run up the West African coast past Somalia, a trouble spot from which piracy has become a commonplace means of acquiring wealth but it’s a job and he approaches it as such. He literally kisses his wife (Keener) goodbye at the airport, grabs his lunchpail and hardhat and goes to work.
But whereas he adopts a very blue collar approach to his job, he is certainly a leader. He expects his men to do their jobs efficiently and well and tends to be a bit of a hard ass. His officers respect him and while there is some grumbling among the union rank and file, isn’t there always?
For Muse (Abdi), life is much less clear cut. He lives in an impoverished Somali fisherman off of coastal waters that have been overfished to the point that they are literally barren of life. A local warlord insists that Muse and other village men go out and hijack another ship, even though they had just successfully taken another ship the previous week. Muse knows that this cycle will continue and has his eyes on a big score, enough so he can take what proceeds he can and move his family somewhere safer.
For Muse and the three men in his command – young Bilal (Abdirahman), on his first mission; Elmi (Ali) the clever driver and mechanic, and Najee (Ahmed) who chews khef leaves nonstop, making him aggressive and angry which is never a good combination. They spot the Maersk Alabama making its way up the coast and recognize this as their golden once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Captain Phillips watches the skiff approach at speed and knows instinctively that these men aren’t there to fish. His pleas for assistance are at first met with skepticism but after he fends off one attack, the second leads to a confrontation that will eventually involve the U.S. Navy, a lifeboat and a hair-trigger situation that could lead to the deaths of not only the pirates but Captain Phillips himself.
Greengrass, who previously gave us a docudrama called United 93 which was one of the best (if not the best) movies on the events of 9-11 yet, is adept at taking a situation that was headline news, enough so that most of us know how it ends and nonetheless keeps us on the edge of our seats. Much of that falls to Hanks, one of the most beloved actors of his generation. Few actors are as likable as Hanks who is not so much the guy next door but the guy down the street who lets you borrow his riding lawnmower on a scorching Saturday afternoon in August. The man is able to project such decency that we are immediately drawn into concern for Phillips’ safety even despite the kind of New England frosty demeanor.
Most of us who are fairly aware of the world around us know pretty much what happened during the real events surrounding Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama in 2009 but most of us aren’t fully aware of the details. That allows us to be caught up in the tension and atmosphere and given the likability of Hanks we become fully invested in his fate.
Greengrass also makes the pirates somewhat victims of circumstance; you get the sense young Muse (who in reality was 18 years old when these events transpired) would have preferred a more honest day’s work. He has few options however and does what he must; the rail-thin Abdi gets some sympathy despite the brutality of some of his crew who are a hair’s breadth from losing it the longer things go.
It should be mentioned that the crew members of the Maersk Alabama have disagreed vociferously with the way events were portrayed in the film and have brought suit against the parent company and Phillips, claiming his recklessness brought them into waters he knew hijackings had taken place in, all to save money by shortening the trip.
That said, the movie works as entertainment and is certainly going to make a lot of best-of-the-year lists come December. Few heroes measure up to their own legend and I’m sure the real Captain Phillips probably doesn’t hold a candle to the Tom Hanks version. Regardless of how events actually played out, this was nevertheless an extraordinary event that will put your emotions through a wringer as depicted here and that can be an exhilarating thing.
REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Terrific performances by Hanks and Abdi as the adversaries.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too much shaky-cam for my comfort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of substance abuse, a good deal of violence as well as a couple of bloody images, and sustained tension throughout. There are a few bad words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The shipboard filming was done aboard the Alexander Maersk, sister ship to the Maersk Alabama.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Argo
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Tomorrow, When the War Began