Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) directs this thriller based on true events that occurred in 2009 when Somali pirates hijacked the US merchant ship MV Maersk Alabama while cruising its route toward Mumbai, Kenya. Tom Hanks, who hasn’t had a solid blockbuster-worthy performance in more than a decade, stars as the titular Captain Richard Phillips and between these two Hollywood vets, the awards season race has started early with a bombshell of a first entry.
The screenplay for the film is adapted from the real Captain’s own book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea and leaves little room for anything but action and edge of the seat thrills while never loses itself in its own antics. The movie conveys the harrowing yet effervescently fascinating story of a real hijacking that goes haywire for both sides in nearly every way possible.
Greengrass and his team appropriately break Phillips into two halves. The first recounts the tension of the cruise’s offset, followed by the actual hijacking, the silent yet effective fight on the part of the crew, and the pirates’ decision that the ship can’t be overtaken. The second part focuses solely on Phillips’ time spent as a hostage in a Maersk Alabama lifeboat and his high stakes rescue by the US Navy and SEAL Team Six snipers.
With this setup, Hanks’ performance for the first half is effective but reserved as he struggles to keep the pirates at bay and keep his crew hidden. Once he becomes the center of the action following a botched exchange of hostages, Hanks completely loses himself in a portrait of a man who is caught between complying with his enemy and fighting for his life. It’s a riveting performance but the spotlight also belongs equally to the quartet of actors who play the small band of pirates.
Led by Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the orchestrator of the hijacking, the team acts with a striking fearlessness that comes with a hint every now and then of utter desperation. For all the malevolence they carry, Greengrass gives them a short intro that shows the audience they’re doing this not as a recreational activity but because, it’s their only way out of a war-torn and impoverished country that holds no future for them.
A scene in which Muse decides to leave the lifeboat and board a US Navy ship for “negotiations” while actually signing himself up for a trip to prison, or worse, sees a broken Phillips sputtering that there must be some other way to solve the situation. Muse, almost heartbreakingly, replies, “Maybe in America… maybe in America.”
And despite their ruthlessness, the audience doesn’t just see four young men acting as mercenaries; they become four young men overcome by the hopelessness of a third-world country.
Abdi and his three co-stars fully rise to the challenge and succeed but what is all the more surprising is that Phillips was the first acting role any of them had ever had. You’ve probably never heard of Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, or Mahat M. Ali either because, together with Abdi, they were four friends who answered a casting call for Somali actors and found themselves in Hollywood alongside an A-list actor. All under 30 (Abdiraham is 19); each immigrated at different times from either Somalia or Kenya and moved to Minneapolis.
But as with any film that’s based on or inspired by a true story, controversy is never far behind and in this case, Greengrass and his writing crew tipped the pot. A hero himself in the movie and in real life, Chief Engineer Mike Perry took critical steps in securing and keeping the crew safe which included wounding Muse and holding him hostage in an attempt to exchange him for Phillips. Ironically though, Perry is now part of a group of Maersk Alabama crewmen who are lashing out against Richard Phillips, claiming he acted recklessly by ignoring frequent warnings of pirate activity in the area and is not the hero he’s been made out to be.
Several of those crewmen are also part of a lawsuit against the shipping company, while Phillips deals with his own investigation by the Navy. The question of whether the captain was a hero or a victim of his own doing finds its way into the movie as well. Though it’s slanted toward your average action movie that makes a hero theme; it is, after all, based on Phillips’ recounting of events – showing the disregard to email warnings and orders, the stubborn insistence that the ship stay on its current path, and Phiilips’ speech to his crew that they’re remaining in Somali waters not because it’s safe but because it’s faster and cheaper than the alternative route.
And let’s not forget that his plan unravels just as much as the pirates’ plan does. The shipment is delayed by a day while waiting for an escort to arrive following the hijacking and the $30,000 on board, while saved from being taken by pirates, was either lost or stolen during the scramble to save Phillips, which in itself cost both time and money.
A disclaimer appears at the end of the film informing the audience that the events and actions depicted may be altered slightly from the real events and actions that took place. While this has become standard text for many movies, it’s also the studio’s way of washing their hands of anything that has to do with the controversy. But no matter what happens in the courts, the studio is lucky to have an epic film that stands on its own as both a portrait of an everyday nightmare for seamen and a thrilling experience for audiences.