Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chermus, Catherine Keener, Yul Vazquez, Max Martini
Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, violence and substance abuse
Strong acting and suspenseful script highlight high-seas drama
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Some stories are so astonishing, they could only be true; you’d never believe them as plots in a novel.
The credibility-stretching 2009 saga of Captain Richard Phillips and the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama is just such a narrative, and it has become a taut, tension-laden drama in the capable hands of documentarian-turned-filmmaker Paul Greengrass.
Thriller fans know Greengrass for his superlative entries in the Jason Bourne series, most notably 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy,” by far the best of the bunch. But Greengrass also is the writer/director who uncorked “United 93” five short years after 9/11, constructing a tense, deeply unsettling real-time depiction of what likely happened that horrible day.
As with “United 93,” Greengrass’ new film is ripped from disturbing headlines, with screenwriter Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”) adapting the 2010 memoir “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea.”
That book is written by Phillips, with an assist from Stephan Talty … which does, by definition, dilute some of this film’s suspense. But that hardly matters; to a great degree, Phillips’ ordeal is well known by Americans who sat glued to their TV sets during five days in April 2009. The key point here is that Greengrass depicts this saga with a degree of verisimilitude, and an attention to detail, that border on documentary realism.
Add superlative performances from Tom Hanks and the actors playing his Somali captors, and the result is can’t-miss cinema: You literally won’t take your eyes off the screen.
The film opens quietly, as veteran merchant mariner Rich Phillips (Hanks) packs in anticipation of another routine assignment; we get brief face-time with his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), but then she’s never seen again.
Elsewhere, along the Somali coast, gun-toting thugs in the employ of a local warlord descend on the impoverished fishing village of Eyl and demand that its able-bodied inhabitants take to the sea in order to hijack another foreign vessel, the goal — maddeningly successful too many previous times — being to ransom it for millions of dollars. The none-too-subtle point is that these dirt-poor fishermen are caught between a rock and a hard place: mount the piracy expedition, or be shot for refusing.
The faces blend in chaos; it will be awhile before the key Somali players distinguish themselves … although Barkhad Abdi’s feral, cunning and unexpectedly intelligent gaze makes an immediate impression.
Once underway on the heavily laden Maersk Alabama, fully aware that they’ll be traveling through the pirate-infested waters of the Somali basin, a cautious Phillips orders first mate Shane Murphy (Michael Chermus) to put the men through safety drills. The captain/crew dynamic is intriguing, in these early scenes; some of the men clearly respect and smartly obey protocol and the chain of command, while others behave like union-coddled jerks who resent not being able to stretch their coffee breaks.
Everybody snaps to attention, however, when their ship’s radar detects the approach of two rapidly moving blips.
What happens next can be divided into three distinct chapters, each guaranteed to surprise viewers not intimately acquainted with this saga. The assault on the Maersk Alabama is riveting, as is Phillips’ crafty response to the crisis; he doesn’t miss a trick, despite having very little with which to work. We quickly come to admire the calm, calculating depth of Hanks’ performance; his portrayal of Phillips — by all accounts, an accurate reflection of the actual mariner — is equal parts unremarkable Everyman and quick-witted master of psychology.
Ray’s script is a masterpiece of nuanced subtlety, taking its cue from the way Phillips described the pirates in his book (and I’m quoting a Booklist review here) as “alternately conciliatory, vicious and simply not all there.” The latter results from the fact that these pirates are in a constant state of amped-up euphoria/anxiety, thanks to the amphetamine-like khat that they chew in lieu of eating.
Eventually, the various pirates sort themselves out and only four become involved in the action. They’re led by Muse (the intense Abdi), who regards himself as a fellow captain and playfully insists on calling Phillips “Irish.” Muse is all business: He expects Phillips to call the shipping company, which will contact its insurance carrier, send along a ransom, and allow ship and crew to move along. We sense that it has gone down just this way, at least a few times, in the recent past … but not this time.
Thanks to Phillips’ cagy machinations — the American captain, at all times, deeply concerned about his crew — the situation quickly escalates out of Muse’s control. Meanwhile, imminent loss of life is a very real possibility, thanks to the instability of Muse’s three companions: the imposing Najee (Faysal Ahmed), with his hair-trigger temper; the taciturn Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), unexpectedly handy as a mechanic; and the youthful Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), wholly out of his depth.
All four — Abdi, Ahmed, Ali and Abdirahman — are first-time actors; their performances are authentic, and subtly complex, to an astonishing degree. We simultaneously loathe and pity these four men, and in a way almost admire their utterly insane courage, as they attempt to take command of this huge ship — and, later, defy what seems like the entire U.S. Navy — all by themselves.
But make no mistake: Greengrass and Ray do not sugar-coat these pirates. They’re dangerously ruthless, unexpectedly violent and prone to irrational, drug-hazed behavior; they obviously wouldn’t lose any sleep after killing an American or three.
Max Martini is appropriately crisp and commanding as the SEAL officer who enters the final round of what eventually becomes an ocean-bound circus; Yul Vazquez is quietly efficient as Frank Castellano, commander of the USS Bainbridge, the Navy destroyer initially sent to negotiate a peaceful solution to the mounting crisis.
Just in passing — between this film and last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty” — Navy SEALS never have looked so good. I fully expect recruitment to take an upward bump.
As always, Greengrass surrounds himself with equally accomplished technicians, starting with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd — Oscar-nominated for “The Hurt Locker” — who works impressive magic during difficult night shoots and the confined, narrow hallways of the container ship. The result is solid cinema verité and intensely real.
Academy Award-winning editor Christopher Rouse (for “The Bourne Ultimatum”) similarly tightens the screws, deftly shifting between the varying perspectives of Phillips and Muse, each a casualty of circumstances. Eventually, this cross-cutting grows to include various Navy personnel, but the narrative landscape never gets cluttered, and the tension never flags.
Hollywood often gets rapped, justifiably, for the way factual events are distorted on the big screen. Although Greengrass takes a few dramatic liberties here, he nonetheless distills a significant bit of recent history into a socio-political document that analyzes cultural disenfranchisement, in 134 minutes, far better than any lengthy textbook is likely to do, in years to come.
On top of which, Greengrass also delivers a rousing, suspenseful and thoroughly engaging drama that is certain to garner numerous Oscar nominations, starting with Hanks.
When cynics insists that movies are too commercial to be regarded as art, “Captain Phillips” is a great way to prove them wrong.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com