Captain Phillips is based on a real-life hostage situation that’s a goldmine for a hokey 90s-style action flick. In 2009, the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates and its captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage in a tiny rescue boat for days while the US Navy worked around the clock to figure out a way to get him out of that impossible situation in one piece. You’ve (probably) followed the news story, now watch as it turns into a major motion picture!
The premise alone is perfect for over-the-top action fare where Captain Phillips is turned into an unlikely hero after being captured. Of course his back-story involves being honorably discharged from a super-duper secret special division of the Army after refusing to open fire on civilians. The Somali pirates think they kidnapped a lowly captain, but this time they messed with the wrong guy! In this scenario, Harrison Ford would have portrayed Captain Phillips in full gruff mode and the Navy commander in charge of rescuing him would turn out to be the same guy who discharged him from military duty. Now, they have to set aside their differences to kick some Somali pirate ass!
However, in the hands of Paul Greengrass, the go-to director for documentary-style recreations of harrowing real-life events (Bloody Sunday, United 93), it becomes one of the most personally involving and pulse-pounding procedural thrillers of recent memory.
Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray turns Captain Richard Phillips’ and Stephan Talty’s non-fiction book retelling the terrifying events into a film that’s as realistic and level-headed as possible.
None of the characters are needlessly glorified nor vilified in order to simply serve a series of tired action movie tropes. The ship’s inexperienced crew is shown being genuinely scared of the possibility of a pirate takeover and instead of inexplicably turning into heroes who immediately step up to the plate, understandably complain that they’re not being paid to combat pirates. Later they do step up to the plate, but only after they’re pushed into a corner.
The pirates, led by the desperate Muse (Barkhad Abdi), are portrayed neither as one-dimensional comic book villains who enjoy torturing and killing their victims, nor are they an overly politically correct result of white guilt, simple and innocent fishermen who were forced to kill and kidnap because of their economic hardships.
They are a result of their harsh environment to be sure, but they are also hardened criminals. While holding Phillips hostage, Muse tells him he and his men didn’t have any other choice, but the film doesn’t offer any commentary either way.
None of the Navy seals and officers in charge of the rescue mission stick out as exaggerated macho characters but a group of professionals calmly working together towards the completion of a common job. A forced personal connection with Captain Phillips’ situation is not manufactured and that expected scene where a plucky commander defies his cease-and-desist order in order to save Phillips doesn’t exist.
Those looking forward to sweet shootout sequences between the seals and the pirates will be sorely disappointed. The final push for rescue involves intricate planning, preparation and patience. Like an old school spaghetti western, the climax expertly builds suspense for a good ten minutes until the big payoff is over in half a second. Yet the ending is more thrilling and emotionally draining than the most bombastic action film simply because it deftly drives home the direct reality of the necessary violence.
Finally, Ray and Greengrass go out of their way to make sure that Captain Phillips is portrayed as a normal human being as opposed to an action hero. The opening scene shows Phillips having an everyday conversation with his wife (Catherine Keener) about how hard is it to make a living in today’s world.
The dialogue is bland and unsexy and doesn’t provide any real plot and character details, yet it’s there for a reason, to show the audience they’re dealing with someone who could be their cranky uncle complaining about the complications of the modern world. Tom Hanks’ masterfully controlled performance sells a man who’s obviously terrified by his situation yet does everything in his power to stay calm.
Final scenes of action films depicting hostage situations show characters joking around and casually making dinner plans after being rescued from their assailants. The ending of Captain Phillips presents the most impactful and emotionally engaging moment in the whole film as it directly shows us what happens to a real person who was just part of such a situation.
Full of the dry yet effective documentary style visual approach expected from Greengrass, Captain Phillips might not be an unforgettable masterpiece in pure cinematic terms, but is an exceptionally constructed genre picture.