Hanks steers “Captain Phillips” home

Photo via impawards.com
Photo via impawards.com

4 out of 5 stars

You may remember the real Captain Phillips from the news in 2009: the traumatic coverage of his cargo ship being hijacked on the high seas, the imminent threat of Somali pirates and the astonishing Navy SEAL mission. The movie version of the real story manages to capture the thrill, but also delves a bit deeper into the story’s depths.

For British director Paul Greengrass, “Captain Phillips” is a move away from directorial work on two action-filled Bourne sequels. This look at recent history is more of a return to his film “United 93,” which follows another hijacking aboard one of the planes overtaken on 9/11.

Greengrass took a few bold moves in “Captain Phillips,” by deciding to shoot the film aboard an actual boat out at sea rather than the typical sound stage used in the vast majority of movies. The setting is felt, giving the action a layer of authenticity, further emphasized through Greengrass’ up close, “shaky-cam” style.

In “Captain Phillips,” Tom Hanks plays the titular hero and demonstrates why he’s won multiple Oscars and deserves yet another nomination.

Captain of a cargo ship headed from Oman to Kenya, Hanks portrays Phillips as a gruff, thoughtful and capable leader. When the hijacking happens, the captain does everything to keep the pirates at bay, but the assailants are determined and manage to take control and rename Hanks’ character “Irish.”

As Phillips struggles to survive while trapped in a confined lifeboat with the pirates, the film pivots to focus on his relationship with the pirate leader, Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi.

The Somali actors who portray the pirates turn in great performances in their big screen debuts. They look nothing like the typical Hollywood actors who might have been chosen for the role, and Abdi stands out as he struggles to keep his three men in line with negotiation and brutality.

The plot methodically builds in the style of “Zero Dark Thirty,” from emerging threat to a take down by the military, affirming the United States’ commitment to protect its citizens through force.

As in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the picture builds up to the showdown between the SEAL team and foreign threats. It’s sufficient to say “Captain Phillips” leaves no doubt about the SEALS’ deadly precision.

But despite this definitive end, there is more complexity to the morality of the film. The viewer’s sympathies are altered when a contrast forms between the American and Somalian characters.

Here, Greengrass tries to communicate a message about the financial crisis, in full swing at the time of the incident in 2009, and the difference between the developed and developing world where millions of tons of cargo sail by impoverished countries.

But the over-emphasis of global inequality might be where “Captain Phillips” enters rough waters.

The opening scene of “Captain Phillips” is clumsy, generic and poorly done in a movie that is otherwise exceptional. On the way to the airport, Phillips worries over the changing world and difficulty his and his wife’s children will face. It manages to be a set piece for Greengrass’s point, but it’s a sloppy one. It mostly serves to show how Hanks’ character cares about his family, through an awkward start nonetheless.

Thematically, the film drives home Greengrass’ point about the gaps in opportunity between the first and third world. This tension is best explored through Muse who, had he grown up in a country with health and education systems, would likely prove a success with his ambition. The point is made clear, when Muse is asked if there is a different opportunity for him in Somalia than being a pirate and he replies, “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”