★★★★ I was initially worried about Captain Phillips when it opened with Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks) getting ready to go to the airport. He finishes checking his email, puts a framed family photo in his suitcase and then talks to his wife (Catherine Keener) about the kids as they drive the family minivan to catch his flight.
There's no chemistry between the two and from the dialogue it feels like this is the first time they've ever talked about their kids. I understand the need to establish his family, so we know what he's fighting for. But there's an email sequence later where we get basically the same information. And I guess you could also make the argument that the scene is used to juxtapose the initial Somalia sequence that follows, but if our minivans are in the movie theater parking lot, I'm pretty sure we already have the first world experience to make that juxtaposition ourselves.
If director Paul Greengrass wanted juxtaposition, then we should see the Somalian pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) at home as well, whatever that looks like. We should get to see wherever he spends his nights. Is he married? Family? We don't know and instead the Somalia we find ourselves in is scary and dangerous right off the bat. We follow the pirates as they handpick their crew, seeing Muse at "work" as it were. If this is all we get from Somalia, then all we need from America is the same. But in retrospect, this is a completely moot point. The film doesn't need either scene to be successful. If we had opened on the high seas, I think the film would have been better for it. Rocky start aside, this is an incredibly crafted thriller.
Muse is called "Skinny" by some of his crew for obvious physical reasons. When he arrives on the Maersk Alabama, Phillips' ship, he begins calling Phillips, "Irish." Neither nickname is super interesting, but the title they both share holds far more significance, Captain. There's a responsibility that goes along with that title. Phillips is in charge of an enormous cargo ship, it's cargo and crew, while Muse is in charge of his band of four pirates and a small skiff. But they both have bosses to answer to, and we quickly see, Phillips has a much easier road as far as this point is concerned.
Muse's offended at the meager $30 thousand Phillips offers him from the ship's safe. "What am I, a beggar?" he retorts. We find out his last piracy ended with $6 million in hand. Of course, his bosses see most of that, otherwise, why would he still be pirating?
Their common job title gives them a bond that helps Phillips more than Muse as he's able to assume a mentor role at times. Once Phillips finds himself alone with the four pirates, he maintains a sense of control and command. It's an incredible feat given how bad the situation gets.
The film does a nice job in making us sympathize with the pirates, while still not going so far as to paint them as good guys. We see where they're coming from, their inexperience, and get a flavor of the circumstances that have driven them in this direction.
Phillips' crew is an interesting one. During the first shipboard emergency drill, they are lacksidasical in their response. A Navy crew this is not. They openly complain about not "signing up for this," but Phillips reminds them that they signed up for the route which travels through dangerous waters, so the decision was theirs.
If you've seen the trailer, read the book or simply heard the news about the real Captain Phillips there are no surprises here. But the film is incredibly impressive in making us think things might turn out different than we know they're going to. Even as the pirates approach the ship for the first time and are turned away, we're lulled into a false sense of security.
As soon as the pirates are on board the Alabama, tension begins to build, We don't know what these men want, nor what they're capable of. I kept waiting for it to turn into an action movie, half expecting Phillips to turn into Steven Seagal and save the day. But as they say in the film, "This is not a drill. This is a real world situation." However the crew and Phillips have a few surprises in store. It doesn't turn into Under Siege, but you cheer hard just the same for each small victory.
Phillips and crew play the situation smart and effectively. Of course, once Phillips is taken from the ship by the pirates and is only 36 hours from Somalia, things really heat up. The Navy arrives, the SEAL team drops in, and the rest is history. Throughout the initial attack on the ship the pirates are incredibly good shots, almost unbelievably so. The accuracy with which they shoot from their moving boat at the moving cargo ship, narrowly missing good guys with every bullet is impressive, especially since they're firing AK-47's on full auto.
The film is so intense, as Phillips boards the Navy ship at the end and goes to the medical bay, a Navy Corpsman begins to talk him down from his experience. He's hysterical and in shock, and we too are trying to pull ourselves back together. As the corpsman tells him it's going to be okay, she's talking to us too, and it serves to settle us back into the real world, back to our safe world of minivans and movies. I left the theater eager to read the book, but not before I made a note to put Tom Hanks on my Oscar short list for next year.