“Captain Phillips,” written by Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty (based upon the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea”), directed by Paul Greengrass, 134 minutes, rated PG-13.
Paul Greengrass is one of those rare directors so good at what he does – frenetic, unsteady action thrillers best exemplified by the latter two Jason Bourne movies and “Green Zone” – that anything remotely in the same vein is merely labeled imitation. Though not a documentarian, Greengrass could also be described as a journalist of sorts, infusing his fiction with current political affairs, and recreating defining moments of our times, as seen in “United 93” and, despite recent controversy, his latest film “Captain Phillips.”
Based on the high-profile 2009 hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, “Captain Phillips” stars Tom Hanks as the film’s title character, Capt. Richard Phillips, a family man from Vermont helming the freighter around the horn of Africa to Kenya. With the escalating number of piracy cases, Phillips is fully aware of the risks that come with navigating the unarmed merchant ship around the Somali coast, yet he and his crew cautiously continue on their route.
Their most feared scenario becomes reality, however, as Phillips and his crew spot two skiffs quickly approaching their vessel, and as Phillips’ notes: “They’re not here to fish.” Though the pirates’ efforts to board the ship are thwarted on their first attempt, one of the boats returns the next day, with four armed pirates (Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali) vehemently pursuing the merchant ship, and ultimately boarding it.
Greengrass works best with his characters under extreme pressure, drawing off the raw, authentic emotion that comes from that. He’s a magnet for stories that move like an out-of-control locomotive, picking up momentum with every scene toward a finale that is imminent, definitive, and more often than not, unsettling. In typical Greengrass fashion, it’s a thrill to watch “Captain Phillips” unfold before your eyes, lighting a fire inside you while keeping you arrested for the 134-minute duration.
Shortly after the film’s release, the authenticity of Phillips’ portrayal was brought into question by some of the crew. As with all Hollywood productions based on true events, audiences have grown savvy enough to take these stories with a grain of salt, whether it’s “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” or “Captain Phillips.” But does it diminish the integrity of the movie?
As with his previous films, Greengrass uses his characters here to speak beyond what’s on screen, digging into the mindset of our captors, as well as the origins of this era of Somali piracy, and problems plaguing the Third World. There’s also a very real fear here, as the crew of the Maersk Alabama come to terms with what lies ahead for them. In that, there’s a lot of truth to “Captain Phillips.”
Perhaps this film has fewer parallels to “United 93,” and is more akin to “Green Zone,” an exaggerated fictional Iraq war story with its feet firmly planted in reality, but its head in the Hollywood clouds. Despite any sort of controversies that have arose, “Captain Phillips” is another strong outing for Paul Greengrass.