Movies: "Captain Phillips" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Captain Phillips"
Movies: "Captain Phillips"


British filmmaker Paul Greengrass brought a visceral documentary style to such powerhouse movies as “Bloody Sunday” (2002), “United 93” (2006) and the best of the Jason Bourne adventures (“The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Bourne Supremacy”).  


Now he does it again with this exciting depiction of the actual hijack attempt of an American cargo vessel by a handful of young Somali pirates in 2009.  “There’s no Al-Qaeda here,” the pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) assures the captain of the Maersk Alabama (a grizzled Tom Hanks).  “This is just business.”


But Captain Richard Phillips, whose own account of the drama is the basis for the screenplay, is a wily adversary for the Somalis.  First he manages to trick one of the two pursuing pirate boats into abandoning the chase.  Then he stops his ship and hides his crew in the engine room, using every means possible to deter the pirates from steering it into port and taking American hostages.  (Ironically, part of the Maersk Alabama’s cargo included food aid for Somalia.)


Chances are you know how this all plays out.  With US Navy vessels and a SEAL team rapidly deploying, the pirates set off with Capt. Phillips aboard a small orange lifeboat, trying to make the 3-day trip back to their home base with a ransom-worthy hostage.  The remarkable achievement here is that Greengrass keeps us on the edge of our seats, even when we know the ending.


What makes it all work is the utter realism of the action.  Greengrass and his crew filmed aboard the actual Maersk Alabama off the coast of Malta, and got some major assistance from the US Navy.  They also had the smarts to recruit a group of non-professional actors, all Somali Americans, to play the pirates.  While the character of Muse stands out here, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali all perform their roles admirably, with some of them more dangerous than others.


Greengrass also brought a strong crew onto the production side.  The screenplay is by Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”);  the cinematography is by Barry Ackroyd, who knows a thing or two about realistic action movies, having shot “The Hurt Locker” and “United 93.”  The pulse-pounding music is by Henry Jackman (“X-Men: First Class”), and has a constant ticking beat, suggesting that time is running out for Capt. Phillips and his crew.


And as he did in “United 93,” the director gives us believable dialogue throughout the movie.  I was particularly taken by a scene in which Phillips is treated by a female medic, as true a scene as anyone who has ever witnessed an actual emergency room can attest.


“Captain Phillips” is rated PG-13 for its adult themes and rather discreet violence.  I give it an A.