Published Jan 21, 2014Half-an-hour into this film I asked myself, Is this real?
Filmed mostly on a clone vessel with handheld cameras, this thriller is based on the 2009 hijacking of U.S. container ship the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. Toting AK-47s, they chase the large vessel off the coast of east Africa and hold a gun to the head of Richard Phillips, a veteran New England merchant seaman. Phillips talks the Somalis into leaving his ship on a lifeboat — but they take Phillips with them.
Greengrass understands suspense (Bourne Ultimatum) and he milks the claustrophobic environment of a container ship and especially a tiny lifeboat of every nail-biting moment he can. Credit screenwriter Billy Ray for constructing the story and keeping the characterizations real. Despite mangling his New England accent, Hanks is solid as Phillips.
However, even more impressive are the Somali pirates, played by unknown Somali-Americans, who give this film its sharpness and reality. As Greengrass explains on his insightful commentary and in the revealing one-hour featurette, he sought authentic Somalis instead of casting black Hollywood stars, a smart move.
Captain Phillips boils down to a standoff between Hanks' Phillips and lead hijacker Muse, a desperate, smart guy with nothing to lose taking on the might of America whom Barkhad Abdi brings to life. That Abdi's scenes with Hanks feel dangerous, rather than simply violent, is an achievement in Hollywood, especially these days. Abdi deserves his Oscar nomination.
This is suspenseful filmmaking at its best.