Sometimes when watching a movie that’s particularly emotionally distressing, one has to ask, “Just how much harrowing adversity can we watch these characters go through? What’s the endgame here?”
Director Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips is one of those movies. It stars Tom Hanks as the titular captain of the container ship Maersk Alabama that was laid siege by Somali pirates in 2009.
Greengrass is on familiar ground. He specializes in harrowing action pictures. In addition to directing the stark and brutal sequels to The Bourne Identity—The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum—this is the guy who wrote and directed United 93, a fictionalized account of United Airlines 93, the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania after it was hijacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.
In other words, Greengrass is no stranger to extreme drama, violence and human suffering. Audiences expecting a rollicking adventure on the high seas should look elsewhere. Captain Phillips is simple, deliberately paced and, at times, relentlessly intense. The fact that it’s PG-13 refers to the amount of blood on screen, not to the degree of trauma its main character and several secondary characters face.
Hanks is Richard Phillips, a Vermont-based captain of a container ship. He’s in charge on the Maersk Alabama, and even before the voyage, in a brief scene with his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), it’s clear Phillips and Andrea are at the end of their wits regarding their extreme schedules. But life is life, and there are kids to get through school and bills, and Andrea drops Phillips off at the airport so he can travel to meet his ship.
That’s where the domestic bliss—if it’s indeed bliss—ends and the terror begins. In distant Somalia, we see pirates gathering on the shores to head off into international waters to storm ships, take their cargo and, if need be, do away with the passengers.
It’s here that Captain Phillips falters a little. Character development is not its long suit. Sure, the Somali pirates have bosses who threaten to kill them and their families, but is that going to make us sympathize with them?
Nah, we’re with Phillips and his crew, even the guys who gripe that their union contracts don’t include hijacking pay. Not that they have long to gripe, because two pirate ships are off in the distance and closing.
The first pirate attack is thwarted; the pirate ships are too slow. But one of the pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), has an idea: Put the other boat’s outboard motor on his boat and double the speed. It works, and the next day the pirates are on the Maersk Alabama.
If you recall the story from the news, you know what happens next. Muse gets into a scuffle with the crew in engine room and the crew trades him to the pirates for Phillips. And then things get much, much worse.
Greengrass, along with Hanks and Abdi, does well keeping the drama going, even when Phillips is captured and much of the remaining running time takes place in a lifeboat. Occasionally, there’s a diversion to a Navy destroyer and a team of SEALS as they deal with the escalating stakes—if the pirates get Phillips all the way to Somalia, he’s probably dead.
It’s on the lifeboat that things flag, even during the intense drama. The pirates are woefully one-sided and mostly just shout at each other. And of course they do. They’re poor, scared teenagers who gradually realize they’re in serious trouble with the United States.
Of course, this movie isn’t about them. It’s about Phillips and his struggle to survive. Hanks’ final scene is truly heartbreaking.
Directed by Paul Greengrass
With Tom Hanks
Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14