Having followed the outbreak of Somali piracy and its feverish media coverage, which began and promptly crested in 2008 and 2009, I went into Captain Phillips, which opens area-wide on Friday, knowing the general story. Richard Phillips, the real-life merchant mariner on whom the film is based, wrote a memoir about the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and his subsequent capture. So it's not like there was ever any question about whether or not he survived.
As such, the lens through which the film must be viewed and the questions which must be asked are related to the handling of recent history. How accurately are events portrayed? And what message does the film impart (vis-a-vis its director or writer) over and above a thrilling play-by-play? What's the angle, basically?
In the first place, director Paul Greengrass, a Brit, is a pedigreed action filmmaker (The Bourne Ultimatum) with a gift for re-creating dramatic events of the recent past (United 93). He establishes characters and scenarios quickly, and wastes little time in ratcheting up tension along an ever-steepening grade. There's pre-programmed drama in maritime capture, granted. But props must be doled out, in equal measure, to Greengrass, the film's director of photography and its editor, through whose masterful work the drama is realized as a compelling cinematic narrative, and amplified through technical elements — pacing, lighting, sound effects — with no scent of gaudy embellishment.
At the outset, Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks, drifting toward Peter Griffin syllabification) is in command of the massive Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship leaving from Oman in the Middle East, bound for Mombasa, Kenya, to deliver (among other things) relief supplies. At sea, after receiving a warning about heightened pirate activity off the coast of Somalia, Phillips sees two approaching Skiffs on his radar. He’s able to outrun them, but they return the next day and manage to board. The pirates — for that is what they are (duh) — are introduced in a perfunctory sequence that hints at the Somali tribal warlord structure and the financial imperatives of constant piracy: Bosses must be paid.
The film then follows the harrowing negotiations between Phillips and the hijackers as they search the ship for the hiding crew and try to peacefully come to terms. When those negotiations go awry, Phillips is captured and taken hostage on a covered lifeboat. The Somalis intend to take him back to their village and conduct further negotiations on land.
That turns out to be a devastating move for them, given the tactical force and sheer size of the U.S. Navy, which comes to Phillips’ rescue. Within the claustrophobic cartridge of the lifeboat, the film’s most intense interpersonal dramas unfold: Pirates vs. Phillips / Pirates vs. Circumstances / Pirates vs. Pirates. Greengrass is adept at prodding the mini-conflicts enmeshed within (and heightened by) the larger ones.
But ultimately, this is a movie about piracy — more specifically, an instance of piracy; not a movie about pirates. Captain Phillips succeeds as an expert retelling of a terrifying capture. It’s gripping and realistic, no question. (Greengrass reportedly had some military personnel playing versions of themselves instead of actors). But it’s not like we care all that much about any of these characters individually. The film’s most interesting player is the pirate leader Muse, played by Somali newcomer Barkhad Abdi. And though Greengrass tries to give all his characters dimensionality, the events are paramount.