We read the stories in the newspaper, about Somali pirates boarding a cargo ship or tanker and holding the crew for ransom. But it’s always been implausible. Pirates are like Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in Pirates of the Caribbean, foppish, overdressed and certainly not particularly dangerous or even relevant in modern times with automatic weapons, GPS navigational systems and live satellite surveillance.
The remarkably gripping film Captain Phillips goes a long way to explain why all of my assumptions are absolutely wrong and demonstrates how a small group of Somalians with nothing more than a fishing boat and some rifles cannot just threaten, but hijack a container ship and hold a far larger crew for ransom.
The film is based on the hijacking of the US container ship Maersk Alabama in 2009, and surprises by portraying the Somali pirates as victims of globalization and its effects on their lives in the poor African nation of Somalia. Director Paul Greengrass doesn’t suggest that they’re justified in their criminal enterprises, but offers some insight into why a group of African men would risk taking on the might of the United States and its Naval presence in the Indian Ocean for what can at best be described as a slim chance of success.
Tom Hanks plays the titular role of Captain Richard Phillips in a very self-effacing manner, assuring his wife that it’s “just another boring day at sea” when the pirates fail to board the ship one afternoon, then coolly lying to the desperate Somalis when they do finally end up on the Maersk Alabama, threatening him and his crew with rifles.
The Somali pirates are led by the smart, volatile Muse (a superb Barkhad Abdi), a savvy criminal who avoids all the clichés we’ve become accustomed to seeing in modern films. He’s desperate for money so he can move to America and realize his dreams of freedom and he’s part of a rigid hierarchy of village elders. When some of the younger members of the pirate gang give up after a failed attempt in boarding the Alabama, he pulls together a small band of his own and they return to hijack the ship. And succeed.
All good action films are propelled by the tension between the main characters, the good guy, the bad guy, and the grudging respect between Muse and Phillips is fascinating to watch. Phillips is a decent man and when one of the Somali pirates is injured, he helps dress the wound so that the boy won’t be in unnecessary pain.
One question left unanswered in the film is how Maersk shipping let the Alabama go through such a hazardous region without an armed escort or weapons on board. True to the facts, the corporation was in the midst of considering crew safety measures when the hijacking occurred, and since then has an armed security detail on all ships traveling through the most dangerous of areas in the Somali region.
The hijacking fails to produce the results desired and the climactic sequences have the four Somali pirates and Phillips on a small enclosed lifeboat. If they can make it to the Somali coast, they can escape the by then massive presence of the US Navy. The tiny ship is tossed about as the pirates, unfamiliar with how to maneuver it, bob on the rough waves. Never descending into the common tropes of kidnappers and kidnapped, Captain Phillips keeps the story moving forward with nail-biting tension.
The final climactic scene marks one of the best performances Hanks has ever delivered, and after the increasing tension of the storyline, it’s just as much a relief for us as it is for Phillips. Of special note is 17yo Barkhad Abdirahman, who plays the young Bilal. In many ways he represents the common man in the increasingly complex hijacking, bullied into following orders even as he fears the dire outcome of their actions. His bond with Phillips was completely believable and serves as an important element of the story too.
There are two superb films released this year about oceangoing dangers, this film and All Is Lost [see my review: All Is Lost]. Both, interestingly, feature Maersk shipping corporation, and both ultimately revolve around the inner strength needed to overcome a hostile and unpredictable world. Captain Phillips, in particular, stands as an excellent example of modern filmmaking, with the complex technical setup and shooting work serving to amplify the gritty, tense story. Strongly recommended.