Craig's First Take: "Captain Phillips"

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The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.
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Is Richard Phillips a hero? It’s a question that springs from a story this week telling us of Phillip’s crew filing a lawsuit against the Maersk freight liner company, which claims Phillips drove the boat into pirate infested waters despite warnings, all in the hopes of saving money. I thought “Captain Phillips”, based on a book by Phillips and Stephen Talty, was on its way to hero-worship style fictionalizing but director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray thankfully aren’t so simplistic.

Tom Hanks plays Phillips, Captain of the Alabama Maersk. Just as he and his crew hit open water, a crew of poor, desperate Somali pirates are being chosen to raid any ship they see. Both the Maersk and the pirates are destined to meet and the film shows that despite warnings, Phillips tried to take precautions but pushed ahead anyway. In a riveting sequence where four Somali’s try to board the ship, everything from hoses to flare and machine guns are used in the opening fight.

Of course we know where this is leading, it’s a battle for control between the ever-thinking on his feet Phillips and the crew of Somali’s, who make up for lack of smarts by being bat-shit crazy. The Navy also enters the picture later on. Greengrass shoots all this in the same nerve-wracking, claustrophobic, heart pounding docu-style he did for “United 93”.

Phillips becomes a far more interesting character though because the film doesn't shy away from making itself a parable. He sees himself as an efficient company man, ready to roll with any changes, control any risks. There’s a good scene early where his crew fears the fight that’s coming with the pirates but Richard makes it seem almost like it’s part of their job description. That hubris is increasingly tested here.

There are two excellent performances here. Hanks shows a man always trying to out-think and out-move whatever obstacle is in his way. Sometimes this bites him in the ass, but you understand why he has the rank of Captain. The other performance comes from Barkhad Abdi, playing Muse, the leader of the pirates. Caught between being killed by the Americans and his own people if he returns to Somalia with nothing, he too knows that fearlessness is his only real power. Saying hero and villain just come off like bland terms, the best part of “Phillips” is men gambling on their instinct in a dire situation.