In 2009. a small group of Somali pirates raided an American cargo ship and kidnapped the captain. It was a huge international news story and, given the fact that you read articles in newspapers, I reckon you likely remember the incident and how it ended. But just in case you missed it, or you're an Amish youth on Rumspringa, I should warn you that this review addresses the fate of the captain, so consider yourself spoiler alerted.
Filmmaker Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) directs Captain Phillips with his usual expertise. How does he deal with the fact that many viewers know that the real Captain Phillips survived the kidnapping (and wrote the book on which the film is based)? By creating a "you are there" experience that is frequently intense enough to rival Alfonso Cuaron's current smash hit, Gravity.
Despite a running time of two hours and 14 minutes, the film is taut and riveting. Quite a feat, as only two characters are portrayed in depth. Both are given just one scene at home: Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) chats with his wife (Catherine Keener in a cameo appearance) briefly and Muse (Barkhad Abdi) becomes a pirate leader when his village in Somalia is visited by criminals that order the locals to hijack a ship and collect a massive bounty for them.
Last night I watched Tom Hanks on Letterman. Interesting stuff. Did you know the largest Somali community in America is in Minneapolis? Determined to make the movie as authentic as possible, the casting team for Captain Phillips advertised for actors in the Minneapolis Somali community. The ad resulted in the hiring of movie-pirates-to-be Abdi, Faysal Ahmed (Najee, the hothead), Barkhad Abdirahman (the barefoot teenager), and Mahat M. Ali (Elmi, the nervous skipper).
After the set up, the story breaks into three major sections: the hijacking of the ship by the four man pirate crew, the kidnapping and holding of the captain after the pirates realize they can't control the ship, and the climax, when the cavalry arrives and all hell breaks loose. Knowing that Phillips lives, I spent the first section focused on how the Captain attempted to protect his crew from the small, volatile invaders.
Clearly the pirates had bitten off far more than they could chew, but they were armed and dangerous nonetheless. The tension ratchets up after the kidnapping, as Phillips' reserved persona begins to crack in the tiny lifeboat with his captors. During the climax, I worried about the pirates as much as the captain. Yes, their actions were terribly wrong, but they were so pressured, so clueless and so hopelessly outgunned ...
The outcome of Captain Phillips is widely known, but Paul Greengrass, aided immeasurably by Tom Hanks (the scene where Phillips emotions are fully unleashed is stunning) and Barkhad Abdi, manage to keep you firmly in the moment.
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