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  • Post last modified:November 24, 2021

Captain Phillips: Attack on the Alabama


captainphillipsIn my review of Bloody Sunday (2002), I wrote that director Paul Greengrass has a knack for making reality-based dramas look like documentaries. He repeated the same feat in the overwhelming United 93 (2006). Captain Phillips lands somewhere between these excellent films, a surprisingly strong retelling of actual events made possible by a trifecta of Greengrass’s attention to details, Christopher Rouse’s ability to work miracles in the editing room, and great actors.

Heading for Mombasa through the Gulf of Aden
In 2009, captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) takes command of the Maersk Alabama, a container ship, and intends to take it from Oman to Mombasa via the Gulf of Aden. This is just outside the coast of Somalia, an area known for frequent pirate attacks, and captain Phillips also receives e-mail alerts about possible threats. At the same time, a group of Somali fishermen headed by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) are ordered by an armed group of men to get back to sea and find a ship to hijack. They climb into two skiffs, heavily armed and high on khat, followed by another ship that serves as their headquarters, and soon find the Maersk Alabama. If they can take an American ship, they figure, there might be millions of dollars in ransom.

Phillips and his crew soon realize that they are in danger, but perhaps they can fend off the potential hijackers ā€“ if only they use their wits.

Delivers in spades
Everything about this thriller breathes credibility, from the various means that ships of Maersk Alabama’s size employ to prevent hijackers to the final showdown where U.S. military begins a complex operation to save Phillips who’s been taken hostage by the hijackers in a lifeboat.

I suppose one should bear in mind that several crew members of the Maersk Alabama have criticized their captain (albeit anonymously) after the release of his book, claiming that his behavior was reckless. Only the crew and Phillips know the truth, but I’ll say this ā€“ there have been so many films based on real-life stories where details have been changed and twisted in order to serve the film as a whole, and that is OK. This may be an instance where the story wasn’t even entirely factual from the start. But what matters is the film at hand. Greengrass has made a first-rate thriller that delivers in spades. That goes for emotions as well, which has been true throughout his career. We genuinely come to care about Phillips, and our feelings for the pirates are conflicted. They’re far from movie villains; poor fishermen who can’t support their families, they find an opportunity in the deal offered by powerful criminal outlets. There’s a telling scene near the end that symbolizes their hopelessness, when Muse tells Phillips that surrender is impossible even though he faces the might of the U.S. military.

Hanks gives a tremendous performance, as expected, but Abdi is also terrific ā€“ intimidating and pathetic at the same time. As for Rouse, no wonder that Greengrass keeps coming back to this Oscar-winning editor ā€“ his work here makes the film incredibly tense, but also guarantees that you’re not lost in the rescue operation.Ā 

As for the negative publicity surrounding this film, there’s also been the usual complaints of perceived racism. Just google it and you’ll find an assortment of bloggers and pundits, some of whom have not even seen the movie. Thankfully, Greengrass proves them all wrong.

Captain PhillipsĀ 2013-U.S. 134 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced byĀ Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, Scott Rudin. Directed byĀ Paul Greengrass. Screenplay: Billy Ray. Book: Richard Phillips, Stephen Talty (“A Captain’s Duty”). Editing: Christopher Rouse. Cast: Tom Hanks (Richard Phillips), Barkhad Abdi (Abduwali Muse), Catherine Keener (Andrea Phillips), Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali.

Trivia:Ā Co-executive produced by Kevin Spacey.

BAFTA: Best Supporting Actor (Abdi).

Last word: “What I loved about this was that it’s a crime story. The best crime stories are always about the crime and its consequences ā€“ you know,Ā ‘Crime and Punishment’ is the classic. Where you have the crime and its consequences are the story, but considering the crime and the consequences makes you think about the society in which the crime takes place, if you see what I mean. SoĀ you get clarity, and you get ambiguity, and you get a sort of rub between the two. I loved that in this. It’s basically about four guys who steal a ship. But it’s a contemporary crime story out in the ocean.” (Greengrass, Den of Geek)



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