A retelling of the headline-grabbing events that occurred on the high seas in April 2009 when cargo ship captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), married father of two, surrendered himself to a group of four Somali pirates in order to protect his crew off the coast of Africa.
It’s not fashionable to admire 'terrorists' anymore. The Battle of Algiers (1966), once a darling of the world’s art house buffs, has lost its revered status through the ravages of time and a movie audience that prefers its action to have computer game simplicity to real life complexity.
Exciting and more skilfully executed than the lazy work of Michael Bay and his clones.
But The Battle of Algiers still has a legacy, and it’s not surprising to learn that Gillo Pontecorvo’s revolutionary tract is one of Paul Greengrass’s favourite films. With movies like Bloody Sunday, United 93 and two of the Bourne films, the former documentarian has secured a name for being the thinking person’s action director whose work considers geopolitics as an essential part of the mix in between gun shots and explosions. In Captain Phillips, a story of a cargo ship captain who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2009 when a ship raid went awry, Greengrass reinforces this reputation.
In his usual fashion, Greengrass keeps things moving swiftly with fast cutting and is aided by the restless faux-cinema vérité camera of his regular cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Exciting and more skilfully executed than the lazy work of Michael Bay and his clones, Captain Phillips maintains action and tension throughout.
One of the film’s best scenes comes when four ragged-clothed, machine gun-toting, khat-chewing Somali pirates attempt to board the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, that’s en route from Oman to Kenya with a primitive metal ladder that they wish to hook on the ship’s hull. Appearing as dangerous to film as it would be to attempt in real life, this pirate invasion generates a sense of begrudging admiration for the Somali pirates that makes one want to exclaim, like Captain Willard of Apocalypse Now talking dispassionately about Colonel Kurtz’s unapproved, but nevertheless successful mission: 'What balls!"
Yet, in contrast, what might a Somali pirate watching Captain Phillips draw from the film? That the American phrase 'by any means necessary" covers any double-dealing? That when Americans give their word they cannot be trusted and that U.S. armed forces are unafraid of using a sledgehammer to swat a fly?
But Captain Phillips is not an anti-American tract. Greengrass and his accredited screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, State Of Play and the risible Color of Night) are more interested in the similarities of their protagonists rather than their differences.
During the film’s opening sequence the title character, played by Tom Hanks, Captain Richard Philips (who later signs off an email to his wife as 'Rich") leaves his Vermont home to take a flight to Oman so he can captain the cargo ship. In most films, this scene’s function would be to show the good and ordered life that the terrorists will disrupt and make audiences care about Rich because he has a wife and children. But, this scene has another purpose. In their farewell chit-chat, Rich laments to his wife (Catherine Keener) about his son slacking off in school and how the teenager may get left behind in a competitive world where bosses, demand tasks be completed and done quickly. Then, before Rich can even get to Oman, the film cuts to the Somali coast where a 'grass roots" group is assembling a team of pirates to make some quick cash. With rusted skiffs, powered by aging outboard motors, these Somalis are doing just the sort of work that Rich fears his son won’t be able to do: serve well-paid masters looking for ambitious and unquestioning talent.
Greengrass continually compares the lead pirate Muse (a dynamic performance by Barkhad Abdi equal to the acting from the far more experienced Hanks) with Rich. They both bark orders and bully their crews into shape. Muse bellows at any of his followers who show cowardice, just as Rich bawls out crew who are only willing to follow union approved conditions (If Rich was a bank manager, he’d be the type to encourage tellers to get shot to protect the company’s financial risk when being robbed)
In case we miss the juxtaposition, when the two captains look at each other, whether from the long distance of ship-to-boat via binoculars or the nose-to-nose confrontation on the Alabama’s bridge, you can feel the chilly air of doppelgänger recognition.
Unexpectedly, the film has the occasional bitter joke that leavens proceedings when one would least expect it. However, the wit is superseded by a barbed poignancy when Rich says to Muse: 'There’s got to be more to life than being a fisherman and kidnapping people." The pointed reply is 'Maybe, in America."
Apart from the standard complaint that the film plays fast and loose with the facts (a lawsuit has been instigated by some real-life crew members against the shipping company because they believe the real-life Captain Richard Phillips endangered their lives which, in turn suggests that the title character has been romanticised) the film’s flaws are minor. A 60-second glitch here and there in Hanks’ performance and one of the Somali pirates remains rather vague when compared to his other clearly defined companions, but nothing that will sink the Captain Phillips’ ship. It remains a fine piece of suspense and action that doesn’t ask you to check your brain at the door.