Without meaning to sound too much like the hard-to-please film cynic that I actually am, I was expecting my theater outing to see Captain Phillips to be pretty...predictable. I anticipated that, in giving over the next 2 hours of my life to ' real-life piracy drama, I would be up against another infuriatingly bad movie akin to the mess that was 2012's real-life Bin Laden-ization, Zero Dark Thirty: a morally reprehensible piece of cinema which was unashamedly one-sided in showing the plight of America against the barbarian bad guys.
' tangle with Somali pirates, however, was superb. The story, which centers on Captain Richard Phillips and the first American cargo ship to be attacked by pirates in two hundred years, was a topical, nail-biting dramatization of the 2009 hijacking with just the right balance of political commentary and theatrical gusto with some outstanding acting talent on board (not to mention the extraordinary cinematography of the ship and the lifeboat with a claustrophobic closeness that evolves into terror as the action progresses). Phillips sails the ship, the Maersk Alabama, from Oman to Mombasa - straight through the pirate-infested seas of the Somali basin. Meanwhile, on the coast of Somalia, ganglords gather local tribesmen for a piracy expedition. As you might expect, it doesn't end well.
Although Hanks' character is likeable, it is without becoming an impossible paragon of virtue. Phillips doesn't get any excessive sympathy from the viewer: he is real. Serious, but real. We see five minutes of naturalistic dialogue between him and his wife at the beginning of the movie, and a couple of nods here and there to Hanks' portrayal of the all-American family man. The everyman. But his character is believable and realistic and - unlike 's Osama-hunter who's given tons of day-to-day scene time as the only way we can get used to her - we warm to Phillips naturally without having sentimentality rammed down our throats. Hanks just inhabits the role and perfectly fits the docudrama style in which the movie is shot.
There's one specific scene at the end of the movie that really floored me (I challenge you not to cry!). Hanks deserves an Oscar for that final scene alone. It was incredible acting; for someone as well-known as Hanks to create such an effect is pretty remarkable stuff.
Equally, the most awesome impression is made by Hanks' third world counterpart, Barkhad Abdi's pirate Captain, Muse. He is gaunt and "skinny", with a deviousness in his eyes. We aren't instructed by Greengrass to like him (despite the actor being irrefutably excellent), but as the director's social commentary unravels and is played out through the two protagonists of the movie, we hear more clearly the 'voice' of Somalia through Muse's plight. There's a strong message underneath all that powerful acting and the message is about economic slavery; whether you're Captain on an American container ship or a impoverished fisherman. Everyone has a job to do, whether he wants to or not.
Phillips is terrified when he sees the pirate ships approaching with machine guns and the movie could all to easily turn out to be a Bigelow-esque pile of patriotism making the Somalian attackers to be savages of a foreign, uncivilized world. What Greengrass does so expertly, however, is show the many ironies and injustices of the global poverty divide: The irony that the care packages Phillips and his team are delivering are partly only necessary because the US is over-fishing the Somalian seas (factually accurate), that "maybe in America" there is a real choice "to make a living besides fishing and kidnapping" but not so in Somalia. Not to mention the baby-faced 16 or 17-year-old pirate accomplice whom we catch glimpses of as naive and kindly and receptive to Phillips' natural father-figure, who is caught inside a loop of corruption, depravity, and - above all - necessity. But Greengrass doesn't fall on either side of the fence. His moral commentary is equally loud in Hanks' Phillips, who comments that his captors wouldn't haven ended up in such a bloody mess if they'd made off with the initial ransom offer and not been prompted by greed.
And somehow, although we know the true-life story of Captain Phillips and his container ship, Greengrass and his truly incredible cast manage to portray this morally complex story and create uncertainty about the fate of the characters, where there is already fact. The characters are three dimensional and their behavior unpredictable. Throughout the movie I kept telling myself that I know what's going to happen (and that includes an extremely strong drink afterwards!), but the movie tests us and then again we're not sure. Like everything else in the flick, when the ending comes, the shock and relief feel real. For a film where you go in knowing how it ends, the intensity is pretty astonishing.
The four (almost) empathetic pirates end up face-to-face with the unadulterated force of the trigger-happy US Navy. And it's at this point that I decided that I felt a little bit guilty for liking the movie so much. But like it, I definitely did. Time for that strong drink...