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In 2009, the capture of the U.S. container ship MV Maersk Alabama by a crew of Somali pirates reached the interest of the U.S. President and was stunning headline news for weeks. The captain of the ship was Richard Phillips, here represented by Tom Hanks in another virile, plain speaking, working man role. The essential modesty and decency he projects in all his sympathetic roles and in real life is perfectly suited to the man who lived through the harrowing events in this thriller story.
Director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy," "The Bourne Ultimatum") and screenwriter Billy Ray ("The Hunger Games"), working from the non-fiction book by the captain himself ("A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea" by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty (Jan 18, 2011), gives an account of the near-disaster with tactile realism.
This is a pin dropping night out at the movies. No one will move throughout its 134 minutes.
There was a time when Hanks all but owned the biggest and brightest marquees in the movie firmament, winning two Oscars ("Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump") and bunches of nominations for almost everything he did from 1989 ("Big") to 2001 ("Saving Private Ryan"). This is the guy who also did "A League of Their Own," "Toy Story [all]," "The a href Green Mile," "Cast Away," and a great deal more. the reason for this credit recap is the likelihood of his "Captain Phillips" portrayal reawakening the Motion Picture Academy to his immense appeal and (as he put it in a Q&A recently), storytelling skills. Just saying.
As Phillips boards his massive ship, the Maersk, on a shiny day, and makes his way to his quarters and to the command deck, he shows us his attentiveness to ship condition and details as he takes command. Two things are clear: his lack of appreciation for crew slackness and his desire to complete the voyage expeditiously and get home to his family ASAP. He made a promise to his wife (Catherine Keener).
Simultaneously, Greenglass takes us to events occurring on a beach in Eyl, Somalia, where "elders," presumably provoked by their higher-ups who thirst for more fortune through piracy, get a new mission under way.
Realizing the danger in the waters he's plying, Captain Phillips sets a crew emergency drill into motion, which becomes the real thing when their radar reveals two boats gaining on them in their wake. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game that arouses Phillips' skills and strategy to avoid a takeover with clever statagems... at least on the first attack.
Luck runs out the next day, when the pirates return in one boat. They manage, this time, to get through the ruses and difficulties Phillips sets up against their intrusion on his ship. The feeling of defeat plays on Phillips face as he observes them boarding with their weapons. But he knows what he has to do.
Chasing into the wheelhouse before it's too late, Phillips notifies the maritime authorities of his situation and gets on the ship phone to update the crew. In a move that probably saved many lives, he instructs the men to form small units, find hiding places in hidden recesses and make all passageways dark. The reality of their situation is a bitch but what we've had here is a stunning prologue to the essential drama and a lead-in to one of the strangest relationships we've seen in a while.
It isn't long before the skipper is facing the pirates and meeting his counterpart, skeletal Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who is in command of his hair-trigger crew and, now, of a boatload of unwilling captives. Phillips keeps his cool as he faces the khat-chewing marine bandits for the first time, studying them as closely as they watch him -- everyone knowing that, for all the bluster and automatic rifles shoved in the faces of the Maersk pilots, these Americans are worth more alive than dead and will please their employer with a maximum payoff.
Phillips soon realizes that the Somali leader is more than a single-minded psychopath. Muse is a man with a subtle and intelligent mind who sees Phillips in a sympathetic way. Phillips can reach this attacker by appealing to his reason and applying careful but clever misdirection.
Those who read the headline stories of this misadventure in 2009 will know how it ends, but for those without that background, I leave it for the movie to reveal how it plays out. What I'll most assuredly say, however, is that the talents involved in this re-creation are at such a level as to make this one of the most suspensefully engaging movies of the year.
Of course, what Tom Hanks can do with such a role is a given to his fans. One of the more remarkable feats is the native talent of four first-time Somali movie actors, with Abdi in particular. One can see (and appreciate) how a character can be built with the careful angles and editing of a sensitive director and a generous co-star.
Having worked on film projects on the ocean, I can tell my readers how many orders of magnitude of difficulty making a movie on the high seas is over working on dry land. This was an enormously difficult task, probably the worst of which were the scenes of Hanks and the Somalis in the ship's emergency boat, hand-held camera, tight quarters, and wave action galore.
Greengrass's muscular direction shows in his crew choices. Cinematographer (DP) Barry Achroyd ("Contraband") meets his challenges by setting the visual tone of jarring realism with natural lighting and hand-held camera work. His lighting encompasses extreme situations, such as day to night, night to intensely lighted night, the weird gaze of military spotlights, dungeon-like shadows, etc. (When on the small boats, Greengrass directed from a side vessel out of view of the cameras).
Though the action alone rivets one in his seat, the tense upbeat of composer Henry Jackman's electronic score matches and advances the heartstopping intensity at climactic moments in the story. And one can imagine how much footage was shot that needed editor Christopher Rouse's work to cut it to theatrical length while preserving performances of first-time actors. Rouse worked with Greenglass on the two "Bourne" pics mentioned above.
The military part of the escapade highlights a group of professionals at their best. Their crisp and unwavering attitudes and tautly controlled strategy made me want to either sign up or salute. This film is the best recruitment tool the current services have had in decades.
Once again, never a dull moment with Tom Hanks. And, once again, a history lesson through thrilling drama. I went home appreciating all that's been done here and, most especially, how Hanks, in the last unforgettable moments of the saga, blew away any objectivity I might have had and wrenched my gut!
~~ Jules Brenner