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  • Adam Carr

"Captain Phillips" steering a great movie

It is a hard chore to make an exciting and suspenseful thriller out of a real life event in which the outcome has already been decided. Director Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips” is a case in point. It is a high seas adventure about the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by Somali pirates. The captain of the ship, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), is taken hostage in a lifeboat and the US Navy comes to negotiate his release, which ultimately leads to the Navy SEALS eliminating the threat and rescuing Captain Phillips. What Mr. Greengrass has done is make a movie that is more complex than just a high seas rescue operation. He tells the story of what happens when two contrasting civilizations run into each other.

Tom Hanks in Captain Philips
Tom Hanks in Captain Philips

Mr. Greengrass starts the movie by introducing Captain Phillips. He paints a picture of an ordinary blue collar New Englander who has children in college and a professional wife. He is serious about his work and takes the necessary precautions to insure that his trip will be without incident both at home, before he departs for Oman where his ship will launch, and as he boards. He is not a naval hero or a blustery captain. The crew of the Maersk Alabama numbers about a dozen and they are all union men hired to transport cargo. Captain Phillips is not dictatorial toward his men but he does nudge them along to keep them on the right track when the doldrums of the voyage dampen their desire to work. He is a man of structure who works by the book and runs the necessary drills to make sure that his crew stays sharp.

Intercutting with Captain Phillips preparations, Mr. Greengrass introduces his other protagonist – the one whose name doesn’t share the title of the movie. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is shown at the beginning of his day. Unlike Captain Phillips, he isn’t preparing for his upcoming ordeal. He is awakened from a drug infested slumber at the warning that the local warlords have arrived at camp. The warlords aren’t happy because this particular sect aren’t bringing in their worth of loot. The elders of the tribe pick out a crew who will go out on the open sea and bring back a catch big enough to satisfy the bosses. Muse is picked and we learn why. He is smart, brave, motivated and it turns out a formidable opponent for Captain Phillips. Mr. Greengrass creates compelling parallel stories of two men who have jobs to do and do their best to get them done. He is also cognizant of the societies from which both men hail. Both are hired hands but one is threatened with death if his task isn’t accomplished.

Paul Greengrass directing Tom Hanks in Captain Philips
Paul Greengrass directing Tom Hanks in Captain Philips

Mr. Greengrass benefits from an unfamiliar world of cargo shipping as the setting of his story. Logic says that massive tankers are difficult ships to hijack. The size should be a deterrent alone. But exactly the opposite is true. These cargo ships are not equipped with any defenses to ward off hijackers except water hoses. The crew is unarmed. The cat-and-mouse game between the hijackers and the Maersk Alabama makes for interesting entertainment as Captain Phillips uses procedure and cunning to fend off Muse’s determination. The same dexterity must be used when the pirates take over the ship. Mr. Greengrass keeps the eventual outcome from being a distraction as he builds suspenseful scenes as the small crew and pirates swap the upper hand.

The movie’s suspense hits a wall, however, when the Navy makes its appearance. There are orders to negotiate and time limits given before the Navy SEALS arrive. The SEALS are an intricate part of the story but Mr. Greengrass brings them in too early (we see the leader of the SEALS’ team leaving Washington DC) and the back-and-forth cuts disrupt the flow. When the conclusion arrives it feels like a Hollywood ending – too easy. That makes knowing it really happened more remarkable.

Mr. Hanks is the driving force behind this movie and provides an interesting study of how an average human deals with life and death situations. Mr. Hanks seems like he’s playing himself when first confronted with the hijackers – he plays innocent and helpful even when conniving against them. But as the crisis progresses so does Mr. Hanks’ performance from argumentative, to despairing, then angry until he reaches his breaking point.


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