FROM THE MOMENT Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) sees two unusual blips on his radar, signaling boats approaching fast, you can say goodbye to breathing, in director Paul Greengrass’ (“The Bourne Ultimatum”, “The Bourne Supremacy“, “Green Zone” etc) eponymously named movie. As you’d expect from any Greengrass movie, there’s his trademark use of hand-held cameras to deliver a level of immersiveness in the action that’s unusually intense.
He wastes no time beating around the bush. The movie begins with the captain packing his bags, readying his journey down to Mombassa via the pirate- infested waters of Somalia. We see his wife, Catherine Keener for a heartbeat – just enough to register a happy marital relationship – and before you know it, we’re on the ship and into the danger zone.
The plot is a simple one – despite the protection of ferocious bursts of water cannon arming the lumbering container ship, Maersk Alabama, they’re easily boarded by the five- man pirate crew of an agile and swift moving skiff just a few hundred kilometers off the coast of Somalia. Captain Phillips follows procedure (“it’s probably just fishermen,” he’s told by his mainland contacts) and hides his crew in the engine room just as he’s confronted by the skeletally thin, Muse, and his desperate band of armed ex-fishermen turned bandits. Phillips offers his captors the contents of the ship’s safe: $30,000. But they refuse this small potatoes, for they are mere worker-bees and their ‘management’ insists on a ransom of $10M. It’s only business, they inform Phillips. They don’t want lives, just money.
The confrontation between Phillips and his captor, Muse (“I am the captain now,” he tells Phillips) forms the emotional center of the movie, even as the scene shifts from the ship to a claustrophobic life-boat where, surrounded by an army of Navy seals, Phillips fights to stay alive and negotiate an end to the stand-off.
Greengrass is the thinking-man’s action-movie director. What he gave us in his Bourne movies and “Green Zone” was not only a sense of felt reality, but heroes we could identify with, battling against the same insidious covert government activities as Tony Scott’s “Enemy of the State”. What with the revelations from Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, it’s interesting how this filmic paranoia now feels more like prescient insights.
“Captain Phillips” only hints at the causes of Somali piracy – he never lets his politics bog down the story – but he offers a strong enough background perspective to ground the action in something deeper than a triumphant, jingoistic exercise in US Naval might. Greengrass offers a flash-by of the layers of control that run the world of Somali piracy and enough of a sense of the pirate captain, Muse, to ensure that the confrontation between him and Phillips isn’t an unbalanced one.
We always expect much of Tom Hanks. He’s still one of the most watchable actors around; and in “Captain Phillips”, he gives us an Oscar-worth performance. Hanks manages to balance blind fear, the leadership and stoicism expected of a good captain and a final emotional breakdown, with absolute credibility. Unlike the strong-jawed Seals who take charge of his rescue, Hanks’s Phillips is as resolute as he is uncertain, as empathetic of his captors as he is fearful of them. He’s the hero who bleeds.
Importantly, novice actor Barkhad Abdi who plays the increasingly desperate Muse is able to stand up to Hanks’ extraordinary screen presence. He’s a man living a life of violence, but who simply wants to see America and earn enough money to feed himself. He manages to keep in check some of the more violent members of his crew even as his carefully managed plan of piracy falls apart.
This is a movie of stark contrasts: the happy, well-fed Phillips v the desperate, skeletal Muse; the well dressed crew of the Alabama v the torn rags of the pirates; the slow moving unarmed supertanker v the fast moving, heavily armed pirate skiffs; the small desperate crew of pirates v the might of the US Naval forces; the rich West v the impoverished Somalia. The extraordinary thing is that these stark contrasts are held in a drama of perfect balance. Here on the open seas, rich doesn’t have it over poor; big offers no real advantage over small. Here, Greengrass seems to be slyly suggesting, the disadvantaged Somalis, for a moment are on a par with the advantaged ‘West’.
“Captain Phillips” only hints at the theme of ‘fishermen gone bad’. Sadly, the image of gun-toting Somali pirates wantonly attacking innocent shipping is only half the picture. The collapse of the last Somali government in 1991 lead to the collapse of any international respect for its 3000+ miles of coastland and fishing rights. The UN has reported that some $300M of seafood is plundered from its waters every year by illegally operating international fishing fleets. Somali fishermen have been shot at and their livelihoods robbed by these far more sophisticated, unlicensed fleets, mainly from South Korea, Japan and Spain. Beyond this theft of the fishing zones, Somalia has also been afflicted by large-scale toxic waste dumping, which has lead to a rash of health related diseases all along their coast-line.
Alas, as is so often the case, the rapacious West – in this case, illegal trawling – has absolutely caused the problem – piracy off this coast. So, while we’re sorry for the likes of Captain Phillips – a noble man simply doing his job, honestly and intelligently – this is just another problem the West has brought upon itself.
But that’s not the remit of this thrilling movie, that’s for the documentary version