Captain Phillips

Starring : Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Chris Mulkey, Max Martini, Michael Chernus

Director : Paul Greengrass

Release Date : 11 Oct 2013

THE world has been forced to become familiar with the sociopolitical phenomenon of Somali pirates. From the time of the country’s civil war in the 1990s and especially in the last eight to 10 years, thousands of attacks have been made on international shipping with hundreds of “successful” vessel captures.

For 2009 alone, the year in which this film’s true-life events happened, there are approximately 80 attacks documented on Wikipedia. Yet with increased maritime policing, training and a shift in focus of the pirates (apparently to other illicit activities), the incidence of piracy has been on the decline in the last two years.

In the film’s timeline, however, it is at its peak. Forced into desperate circumstances by encroaching foreign vessels, Somali fishermen become the pawns of warlords seeking to enrich themselves.

Millions of dollars exchange hands for the return of hijacked vessels and their abducted crew, a pittance eventually finding its way into the pockets of the actual pirates (or “Somali National Volunteer Coast Guard”, as they identify themselves to targeted ships).

“We all got bosses,” one of the pirates in this movie says, in response to a query by its titular character (played by Tom Hanks) as to why, when they can pocket millions from one hijacking, they’re still out marauding on the high seas.

There are so many factors behind the phenomenon, it’s impossible to judge the men storming the ships and brandishing the weapons. The reality is not so simple or black-and-white that it can be sorted out by Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham and Dolph Lundgren blasting Somali pirates in half with big guns.

The powerful warlords and gang leaders – dodgy as the sources of their power may be – pulling the pirates’ strings just exploit them with the promise of paltry rewards and by stoking emotions and sentiment. Well, that’s another phenomenon the world has been forced to become familiar with.

Captain Phillips the movie, however, doesn’t dwell too long or go too in-depth where the causes and motivations of Somali pirates are concerned. It concentrates on the events of April 8-12, 2009, when the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama was attacked, and recounts those days in gripping fashion.

Some crew members came out after the movie’s release to contradict parts of the story, claiming that the good captain ignored warnings and steered them into danger anyway, but director Paul Greengrass (Green Zone, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) has stood by the account given in his film.

A quick scan of the Web will come up with a couple of moments where the film actually appears to diminish certain crewmen’s role in the siege and defence of the Alabama and plays up Phillips’s part in the proceedings instead; though there are some moments of true courage that are not taken away from them.

Still, as dramatic licence goes, it doesn’t appear to be such a blatant distortion of the facts as has happened with numerous other biopics / true stories of the past.

Though the film runs over two hours, there’s hardly any excess running time (cut down your fluid intake before and during viewing – you don’t want to miss a thing).

It intercuts scenes of Phillips saying goodbye to his wife before heading out to sea, talking everyday family stuff, with the home village of pirate Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) when representatives of the local warlord arrive and order them to stop slacking and head out to sea.

Each little “squad leader” runs a four-man team, and in selecting his three men from the clamouring crowd, Muse makes one odd selection that proves to be a terribly fateful one for all concerned.

With a captured Taiwanese fishing trawler serving as a “mothership” to tow their attack skiffs out to the high seas, Muse and his buddies await the arrival of suitable prey. (The trawler was captured a couple of months earlier; it was eventually released, with 27 of the 30 crew – three died during captivity – in February 2010 after a ransom was paid.)

That prey arrives not very far into the movie, in the form of Phillips’s big, fat, attractive prize of a ship.

And for almost two hours, Greengrass captures and holds our attention – figuratively, grabbing us by the throat and not letting go.

If, like me, you’re not too familiar about the evasion and deterrent measures taken by merchant ships against pirates, this entire sequence where the pirates harry the Alabama, get beaten back and come back for more is quite the eye-opener.

In between, little “issues” crop up as crewmen lament the lack of armed guards on board, or even firearms with which to defend themselves. But such things are not allowed to dominate the dialogue or dampen the pace.

Greengrass keeps it gritty and real, in that the film’s characters never behave as though they’re in a movie. Muse’s dialogue for half the film seems to be stuck in a non-script-edited loop, as he repeatedly tells Phillips, “Everything going to be OK, Irish.” The heroism in the film is not action-hero stuff but born of desperation and coming in sudden, short bursts. Wounds actually take their toll on the wounded, even cuts on hands and feet.

And yet, Captain Phillips had me completely caught up in its goings-on, far more effectively than any “high-octane” blockbuster action thriller of recent memory. This is truly a showcase of capable and compelling filmmaking, elevated a notch higher by sterling performances, especially from Hanks and Abdi, who was working as a chauffeur when he was cast in this film.

The latter, especially, lets a quiet dignity shine through his pirate’s eyes; his dogged determination not to let his prize escape is convincing, but the humanity he brings to a role that should be hateful is commendable.

Hanks, at his typical high level of everyman relatability, succeeds in bringing Phillips from something of a cold fish initially to an honest-to-goodness man to respect by the time the pirate raid is well under way, right through to the subsequent high tension.

Not so admirable are the actions of the mini dictators who force their people into lives of crime on the pretense of “taking back what’s ours”, or the puzzling lack of protection afforded on board vulnerable merchant vessels where military help can often be too far away, not when every minute alone is a perilous one. 

By putting us uncomfortably up close and personal with the way all this affects the people on the ground – the ants under the boot, so to speak – Captain Phillips also reminds us that exploitation can wear many faces, sometimes even genial ones.

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Captain Phillips


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