As someone who followed news of the Maersk Alabama in 2009, I was curious how director Paul Greengrass would approach the story in “Captain Phillips.”
The film begins as Phillips (Tom Hanks) prepares to leave his Vermont home to catch a flight. He is scheduled to captain a cargo ship around the horn of Africa. On the way to the airport, he and his wife discuss their nearly grown children and the uncertain future they have.
In Somalia, a warlord sends his strong men to urge local fishermen to get back to their piracy. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is a bullied, quiet man, but he is experienced at piracy and is allowed to chose his own crew of three. With another crew and their leader’s crew, they set out on a hijacked fishing vessel, towing two skiffs, to hunt for a ship to take for ransom.
Arriving at his ship, Captain Phillips does a cursory inspection of his ship’s security. He has been alerted of the increase in pirate activity around Somalia, and decides to step up security measures. He also establishes himself as a no-nonsense boss and insists on security drills. It is during one of these drills that Phillips notices some suspicious activity on his ship’s radar.
Unable to raise an alarm with authorities, Phillips uses standard tricks to avoid the initial incursion, trying to swamp the approaching skiffs in the Maersk Alabama’s wake. He also uses a ruse to scare off one of the skiffs. Running his ship at higher than normal speeds, he manages to outlast the pirates when Muse’s skiff loses it’s engine. Muse and Phillips see each other in their binoculars, sizing up their competition.
Back on the pirate mothership, Muse takes the engine off the other skiff and with the additional speed is able to quickly get back to the Maersk Alabama. This time, Muse and his crew get the upper hand and manage to board their quarry. They quickly shoot their way past the pirate cages and other security measures and get to the bridge, while the bulk of the crew have been hidden in the engine room.
Captain Phillips continually does everything in his power to save his crew. After the crew manages to capture Muse, the pirates agree to leave on the ship’s lifeboat in exchange for Muse’s safe return. During the exchange, Captain Phillips is taken hostage on the lifeboat.
While the U.S. Navy is working outside to secure Phillips’ return, the Captain is at the mercy of the seemingly unstable and violent pirate Najee. The more Najee comes to doubt Muse’s leadership, the more danger Phillips is in.
When a film is framed by well-known events. It falls to the Director to maintain some level of anxiety and tension both for the audience, but also between the characters. Greengrass does an admirable job in that. The film also takes the time to establish the humanity of both Captain Phillips and the erstwhile fisherman Muse.
The result is that “Captain Phillips” is effective at telling a story that we already know the outcome of without seeming too predetermined. Tom Hanks does a fair job up to the point that Phillips starts to suspect he will not survive and begins acting much less intelligently. From then on, the character seems to get away from Hanks. Still, “Captain Phillips” will probably end up in the top quarter of films in 2013.