CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, and Catherine Keener. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 134 min.
This is an American film, based on the hijacking of the US container ship, “MV Maersk Alabama” by Somali pirates in 2009. The ship was seized by four Somali pirates, led by Abuduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), 240 nautical miles from the Somali port city of Eyl.
The film is based on memoirs about the event, which were published by the ship’s captain, Captain Richard Phillips, with Stephan Talty. Tom Hanks plays the Captain, and Catherine Keener plays his wife, Andrea.
The ship, with a crew of 20, was bound for Mombasa, Kenya. The pirates boarded it on April 8, 2009, and a rescue effort was mounted by the US, using its combat troops four days later. It was the sixth vessel in a week to be attacked by pirates, who became known for their strategy to extort ransoms for people they captured by asking for millions of dollars. The crew of the container ship had received anti-piracy training, but despite this, the ship was boarded successfully by the pirates. The pirates were after insurance money from the shipping company.
The pirates took Captain Phillips as hostage, and the crew members of the “Alabama” managed to capture Muse. When it was agreed to exchange Muse for Captain Phillips, the pirates failed to honour their agreement. Because the pirates could not control the ship, they decided to escape with Phillips to Somalia, where they knew they would have a strong negotiating position. US warships quickly moved in, and in the ensuing battle, Captain Phillips was rescued, but three pirates were killed. The surviving pirate, Muse, was brought back to the US to stand trial, and was sentenced to 33 years in prison for piracy. He still serves that term of imprisonment.
When the saga was over, Phillips published his memoirs under the title of: "A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea" (2010). It is his recollections, expressed in these memoirs, which form the substance of the film. The film tries to follow obsessively the events of the period April 8 to April 12, 2009, and it aims to depict them literally.
Tom Hanks plays the part of Captain Phillips with dignity and reserve, and the film aims for accuracy in the richness of its detail. The economic and political significance of the act of piracy are explored, but not in great depth, and the tragic consequences of Muse’s observation that “I’ve gone too far and I can’t give up… it was supposed to be easy” are left undeveloped.
The movie arouses strong nationalistic sentiment. It is careful at all times that America’s involvement, and the actions of its troops, not be criticized in any way, and they are presented as positively as possible. The film also studiously avoids awkward moral issues like the ethics of the Navy order for “execution”. Narrative strength is lost, despite moments of great dramatic power, because one is never uncertain about the final result. However, Paul Greengrass directs the movie with a firm sense of where the tension lies, and the tension builds throughout as the situation develops dramatically both for the pirates and for Phillips. In a commanding way, Greengrass optimises the film’s thriller components.
Tom Hanks is excellent, as always, and takes on the role of Captain Phillips with quiet resolve, high intelligence, and determination. There are indications that the film has aroused some controversy about what really happened, but the role propels Hanks into 2014 Oscar contention.
Splattered with the blood of his executed captors, the ending of the movie is highly emotional, and shows Tom Hanks at his acting best.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out October 24th 2013.