Before we get on with the review, we ought to establish the basic facts as everyone accepts them. On April 2009, the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama set sail from Oman to the port of Mombasa in Kenya, carrying food cargo and a crew of 20 merchant sailors. Maritime authorities would warn all ships sailing near the Horn of Africa to be careful of pirate activity on April 7, 2009. On April 8, four pirates based out of Somalia found a way to board the ship. The pirates managed to capture several crew members, including the captain, Richard Phillips. While this happened, the rest of the crew followed their training while chief engineer Mike Perry killed all the ship’s propulsion and control systems. This made the ship effectively dead weight, with the pirates unable to restore the propulsion systems and bring it towards Somalia. Perry and other seamen fought with one of the pirates who was looking for them and captured him. They negotiated an exchange for Captain Phillips and the other captured seamen for the captured pirate, but this went awry when the pirates opted to not honor their side. They launched in the Maersk Alabama’s lifeboat with Captain Phillips onboard as their hostage and their intent to reach the Somali coast, where he could be ransomed for millions of dollars in insurance money.
As this happened, the USS Bainbridge was sent to intercept the lifeboat and the Maersk Alabama. Upon reaching them, the Maersk Alabama was sailed out of the area and towards their destination of Mombasa. Negotiations between the Bainbridge and the pirates aboard the lifeboat ensued while two other military vessels, the USS Halyburton and the USS Boxer were en route. Phillips tried to escape on April 10, managing to get away and jumping into the water, but with no way of knowing if it was him, no help came and the pirates recaptured him. On April 12, US Navy Seals managed to kill three of the four pirates on the lifeboat — the fourth was aboard the Bainbridge with the intent of negotiating a cash-for-hostage exchange. Phillips was rescued by the US Navy. The living pirate, Abduwali Muse, was captured, tried and convicted of piracy; serving his sentence of 30 years in an American prison. The remains of the three dead were returned to Somalia.
As Smiling Jack Ross said in A Few Good Men: “These are the facts of the case. And they are undisputed.”
The movie by director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) and writer Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Shattered Glass) adapts Richard Phillips’ book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea to tell its tale. But I wanted to bring up the historical account because it is disputed by the rest of the crew of the Maersk Alabama. Eleven of the crew have sued their employer alleging that Captain Richard Phillips displayed “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety.” The real-life Chief Engineer Mike Perry, who comes off as a hero in the movie, has also stated that the movie tells an incomplete story. That’s a far cry from what we see in the movie.
The movie version of Captain Phillips is a man who goes about his job as professionally as he can. He’s a family man, worried about his wife and his family and the changing nature of the world that his kids will have to deal with. He’s a stickler for the rules and tries to do his best in ordering 19 merchant marines who, at times, come off as uninterested in the daily drudge of life aboard a merchant vessel. He assessed the situations well and is unflappable even in the face of armed pirates. Now, a lot of this is just naturally imbued onto the character by the presence of Tom Hanks, who could add gravitas to any situation he wants. Hanks channels the audience’s good will with him into a rooting interest for his Richard Phillips.
Facing off against Hanks’ Phillips are the pirates, most notably Barkhad Abdi’s Muse and Barkhad Abdirahman’s Bilal. Abdirahman has the easier of the two roles as the snarling, khat-dependent, fire-first Bilal. He becomes Phillips’ tormentor and punisher as well as the demanding counter-balance to Abdi’s more nuanced and thoughtful Muse. Abdi’s role is key, however, as he is not only the leader of the pirate crew, but the opposite to Phillips. He represents a lot of the Somali pirates — former fishermen, forced to piracy by need and warlords, dependent on the local drug of choice (khat), their waters overfished by conglomerate fishing companies.
The movie juxtaposes the positions of both Phillips and Muse. Their trades are difficult and dangerous. They’re both responsible for their crews. And failure for them is a constant fear: for Phillips, it’s the worry about his family’s well-being and sustenance. For Muse, it’s the fact that a warlord expects him to bring cargo ships and crew members to ransom for millions of dollars or pay for it with his life. Both are determined to accomplish their missions, but only one can. (Aside: this is Barkhad Abdi’s first movie ever and he nails his character perfectly).
Surrounding them are an eclectic cast that includes Catherine Keener, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Yul Vazquez, Max Martini, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali. None of them are around for the entire movie. Ahmed and Ali as the other two pirates are more present, but most of the cast is only involved in sections of the movie. That’s partly following the story as it happened and also because the focus remains on Phillips and Muse and the drama in the lifeboat.
Greengrass brings his usual cohorts — cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Christopher Rouse — along with composer Henry Jackman to create a movie that can feel realistic to its source material. There’s little in the way of bombast, even if the camera gets in with the pirates in their little skiff and sits alongside Captain Phillips in the stuffy lifeboat. And let me be state it here and now: Greengrass’ infamous shakycam is present in this. The turn of the waves against the boats or the rush of the running pirates; you will feel all of this and more. If you had issues with it during his Bourne movies or in Green Zone, you may want to wait till it’s out on home video.
In a weird sense, all the power and talent he brings in front and behind the camera works in doing what he wants: creating a sense of realism in the movie. You believe that these pirates are desperately driven to hijack the ship. You believe the tension as the armed pirates search the darkened engine room for the hidden crewmembers. You certainly believe that the US Navy is not going to let this situation get any worse than it has to, by any means necessary. But this sense of realism also works at failing to immerse us in the story, which sadly is lacking a center. Greengrass and Ray have done a good job of adapting Phillips’ autobiographical tale in a manner which everyone admits is realistic. What is so odd to me is that the movie follows the beats of the story step by step without ever delving deeper into any sort of theme or core concept.
I mean, is the point of this movie that piracy is a real thing in modern seafaring? Or is it that good men are driven to dangerous extremes for the sake of family and survival? Or even that men like Phillips and Muse are just pawns to powers greater than they? The movie does a great job at portraying the situation and the characters in as close to a real manner as possible, but you never connect with any of them. All of the heavy lifting is done by Hanks and by Abdi, who each imbue their characters with their characteristics. But if you have Tom Hanks in your movie and your audience cannot connect with him, that’s by design.
In fact, the only moment that feels emotionally honest is the one at the end, where Phillips is being examined by the Navy medical staff. As they ask about his state, he suddenly bursts into half-sobs/half-screams; finally able to release all the tension and all the fear he had balled up inside himself. It’s the only time the movie allows us inside the mind of its lead character and it’s over way too soon — cut to black to give us the denouement in title cards.
And that’s what makes Captain Phillips such an odd movie. The facts are in dispute by the real-life men who lived through them. The movie, in an attempt to hue as close to realism, never really delves into the heart of this drama at play. We root for Captain Phillips because he’s being portrayed by Tom Hanks but we don’t really get to know his character. Nor do we get to know the pirates or the merchant sailors or the military men and women who come to the rescue. You’re made to sit at arm’s length and watch it all unfold but it never sinks into you and reveal itself. In a sense, this is the most expensive History Channel documentary ever made.