Not even ten minutes into “Captain Phillips” and you already realize this isn’t the movie you thought it was. Despite trailers for the movie and heart-pounding suspense that says otherwise, you never expected to become quite so attached to the very villains that are holding our hero hostage.
“Captain Phillips” is a thrilling drama directed by Jason Bourne legend Paul Greengrass. Now, ignoring the ever-present ‘shaky-cam’ and lightning-fast cuts (second only to Michael Bay himself) this is a film that will likely contend strongly for Oscars during the oncoming awards season. You might now be thinking, “oh, Chris. This is yet another film claiming to be based on a true story! How accurate is the story? How believable are the actors?” Well, my friends, after reading separate interviews with Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass, the actual Captain Richard Phillips, and first-time ever actor Barkhad Abdi, I can confirm that “Captain Phillips” is a true to the facts film that does it darndest to capture the essence of Richard Phillips and his crew in the harrowing scenario they found themselves in.
Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) gets the call to captain a shipping container-filled cargo ship around the Somalian coastal borders. We spend just a few moments with him as he combs his beard and kisses his wife (Catherine Keener) goodbye, and before you know it, we are thrown into the middle of Somalia. It might bear gritty reminders to those in the audience that have seen “Blood Diamond”. Not necessarily in the same part of Africa, but still quite dangerous and brutal, nevertheless. It is here we realize that our soon-to-be-enemy, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is a pirate, and a human being; oh, what a twist! Some machine gun laden jeeps drive up to Muse’s village and within minutes, Muse is hand picking a crew to locate and capture an American cargo ship. This isn’t purposeless of course. Muse and his village owe money and supplies to a local, barbaric, drug lord kingpin, whatever you might call him. We begin to feel a tinge of sympathy early on for Muse’s plight, and it follows us throughout “Captain Phillips”.
Some more time passes and we get to meet Phillips’ crew. To them, Phillips is a cranky old sea-beard who takes the phrase ‘by the book’ a bit too seriously. To him, they are a lazy group of sailors who think a coffee break usually lasts an hour or so. A few men onboard actually respect him when his back is turned, but even those men still think emergency drills are child’s play. After all, who actually expects to get assailed and boarded by blood-thirsty demons like the Somalis? Well, jokes on the crew as Phillips has to say the words, “this is not a drill” in the middle of a pseudo-emergency drill. By the time the pirates board the ship, we start to give up hope, until Phillips shows us just how smart and mentally prepared he really is.
From our story beginning to close, “Captain Phillips” is a fine example of a dramatic thriller with excellent acting and an abundance of sweaty audience palms. There seems to be a lot of subtle contextual stuff between the American Naval forces and how they end up lying to Muse and his gang. It makes you wonder how other countries view our American culture. Even some of Muse’s gang shout about how rich Americans are while holding a man and gun point and laughing uncontrollably.
Tom Hanks is positively stellar as Captain Richard Phillips. Quite possibly my new favorite scene with Tom Hanks is a long real-time shot on Phillips as he sits in a medical station, finally freed from his incredibly traumatic experience with the Somalian pirates. He has just emerged from the interior of what seems like a week-long ordeal in a small lifeboat with four pirates; but, I should remind you that we feel for the pirates to some extent as they are only doing what they feel they must in order to survive and provide for their village. Phillips lies on a bed, being treated by a nurse. He doesn’t say much to her questions at first because he’s only just now been able to start processing everything that just happened. The man who seemed so determined and battle-hardened realizes he’s covered in blood, but not even his own blood. As Phillips begins playing back the memories in his head, so do we. It’s easily the most powerful moment in “Captain Phillips”. The background music feels eerily similar to “Time” from Hans Zimmer’s “Inception” soundtrack, even with the muted strings, quiet piano, and electric guitar slowly building. (Hint: Zimmer is listed towards the end of the credits. Coincidence, I think not.)
While Hanks will likely and hopefully receive a nod for his work either here or in the upcoming “Saving Mr. Banks”, I would venture to say that it is Hank’s supporting cast that truly shines. The crew of the Maersk Alabama (Phillip’s ship) all appear to have never taken acting classes in their life. This works to their advantage as the purpose of acting is to fool the audience into believing you aren’t acting. They are all very believable. In an interview, Captain Phillips stated that the movie portrays him almost as a lone hero, which wasn’t the case. He says that his crew deserved so much more credit. Obviously, things like this are hard to deal with in Hollywood.
Finally, I should mention that pirates in the film were cast from a largely Somali populated area in Minneapolis. Many of these people are refugees from the Somali coast line area. So yes, Abdi is not alone, and many of the others you see here have not actually acted before. Greengrass did not even allow them to meet Hanks until the day of the shoot where they stormed the Alabama. That being said, Abdi is fantastic as Muse. This is a villain for whom you feel for. I believe this role will not be forgotten for quite a while.
So the tl;dr of this whole thing? “Captain Phillips” is a must see with heart-thumping action and heartfelt acting. Go see “Gravity” if you haven’t already, and then do yourself a quick favor and watch this one.
[EDIT] Here is a fascinating AMA on Reddit featuring the real Captain Phillips. http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1p2csm/i_am_captain_richard_phillips_whose_story/