I never thought a movie about a cargo ship could hold my interest, but “Captain Phillips” now has me convinced.
The film follows the true story of the American container ship MV Maersk Alabama and its encounter with Somali pirates in April 2009. According to The New York Times, four pirates attacked the ship and took captain Richard Phillips hostage on one of the ship’s lifeboats. Thus began a multiple-day standoff between the pirates and the U.S. Navy.
The screenplay for the film is based on Phillips’ subsequent book, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.” The true story is dramatic and suspenseful, a perfect choice for a blockbuster film.
Tom Hanks was chosen to portray Phillips, who guides the ship en route to Mombasa, Kenya. The hijacking begins rather quickly thereafter—as the crew undergoes a routine drill, two small boats approach the ship.
The first boat to make it to the vessel contains four Somali pirates carrying pistols and AK-47s, who soon board. After trying to protect his crew and end the ordeal calmly and efficiently, Captain Phillips is taken hostage.
Throughout the film, director Paul Greengrass emulates the choppy sea with shaky and bumpy camerawork, but at times his attempt at authenticity feels unnecessary. The beginning of the film also frustrates, with shots of a conversation between Phillips and his wife that shows only the backs of their heads.
As the plot progresses, the rising and falling action is well moderated, keeping the audience entertained and, at times, on the edge of their seats. Hanks gives a convincing performance as a regular guy stuck in an extreme situation; he isn’t acting like any sort of superhero—he is a man who simply uses his head to get out of the situation and keep his crew safe.
Barkhad Abdi, who plays the Somali crew leader Muse, gives an outstanding performance. Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray also take the time to elaborate on the situation in Somalia, especially the societal and economical struggles which drove the fishermen to piracy.
Although the story is authentic, there are a few Hollywood embellishments that don’t detract from the story, but make the action tenser for the audience. According to Time Magazine, added details include a broken glass booby trap, a larger ransom, and the sympathetic portrayal of Phillips’ captors. Before a screening of the film, Phillips himself reported that they were always adversaries and he never experienced Stockholm syndrome during the hostage situation.
According to USA Today, the real Phillips was impressed with Hanks’ portrayal of him as “a regular guy.” Greengrass and Ray also contacted Phillips on many occasions to get the feel of the film right, but Phillips claims “what happened [in actuality] was a lot worse than that,” referring to the mock executions held by the pirates.
The New York Post reports that some of the real crew members have spoken out about the film, claiming it does not reflect the events accurately. Apparently, the crew had begged Phillips not to sail close to the Somali coast, but were overruled by the captain in favor of “saving time and money.” It’s hard to differentiate between fact and fiction here, especially concerning the film’s biased portrayal of the crew members.
Regardless, the true story makes for a thrilling and enlightening film. Though the cinematography was inconsistent and the content controversial, “Captain Phillips” is definitely a thumbs up for moviegoers this week.
Veronica may be reached at [email protected]