Plenty of us are acquainted with the stories of Somali pirates causing trouble for American ships off the coast of Africa in 2009, but very few know the extent and severity of the situation, as well as the crew of the Maersk Alabama. Captain Phillips loosely retells the events of early April 2009 when the first American cargo ship in 200 years was taken by pirates just a few hundred miles off the coast of the Somali Basin. Tom Hanks heads a dark horse cast that was tasked with bringing immense amounts of emotion and tension to a two-hour film shot mostly on the ocean, and they succeed.
The beginning of the film is pretty much stock trailer footage of a boat hijacking movie. Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) prepares for his three-month trip on the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, along the coast of Africa to deliver goods to Mombasa. When he discovers the route they must take is in an area of potential piracy risk, he demands a crack-down on security protocol and calls for piracy situation drills. Ironically, while the drill is being executed, two skiffs (small, light boats) are noticed on the ship’s radar rapidly approaching. Thanks to quick-thinking defense tactics, Phillips and his crew are able to scare away one of the skiffs completely, and despite closing in at around two miles, the other falls back as well to arm itself with a longer, makeshift boarding ladder and stronger engine.
Although they put forth a valiant effort, Phillips and the crew find themselves warding off the same skiff within 12 hours, but the same tricks don’t work this time around. Battling through high-powered defense hoses and hand-fired signal flares used as weapons, the band of pirates finally hook the ladder and board the ship. The majority of the crew seeks refuge in the engine room, where they will least likely be found in the 130-degree sweatbox; Phillips and the crew in the bridge are left to face the ruthless, money-hungry Somalis.
Now, there is a sense of ease in how difficult it really is to generate fear and tension in a chunk of a film when the known villains are chasing the good guys, but all of the elements come together to form an experience that gets your heart racing, as if you’re standing on the ship watching it play out. Hanks’ facial expressions and nervous New England accent provide a hectic flurry alone, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Music is a heavily overlooked aspect of film that can highlight any scene in a specific way to evoke a certain feeling in the audience. During the initial hijacking attempt and the successful attack, the soundtrack is completely on-point. African drums beat to a tempo that jumps back and forth from a steady to a breakneck pace, which really gets the adrenaline flowing during camera shots that are constantly shaky or dramatically bobbing up and down like one of the pirates is holding it. Put the whole package together and you see skillful camera work edited perfectly to show both the crew of the Maersk Alabama and the pirates accented by dramatic performances on both sides, and a pulse-pounding musical score.
It’s taken me this long, so I’ll finally hop into the acting, which is front and center, fueling the majority of the story and emotion. Before we get into Hanks’ performance, the actors who play the Somalis deserve plenty of recognition for their roles. The constant contrast to Phillips is the Somali leader, Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi. His intensity, greed and ruthlessness are evident through everything he does, but the pinnacle point is when he’s in the bridge, grabs Phillips and barks, “Look at me. No, look at me. I’m the Captain now.” This is a very gritty moment that paints the reality through dialogue extremely well. The rest of Muse’s crew does a much better acting job than the “crew of bumbling pirates” assumption might lead you to believe. Their relentless banter brings a slice of comedic relief while outdoing the usual shadow placed upon the antagonist’s lackeys.
Hanks’ performance is obviously the highlight of the movie. Let me just start off by saying the man hardly ever disappoints, and this is no exception. I mentioned the New England accent, but Hanks is also sporting gray hair and the natural talent to make you feel exactly how he does in any given instance. If you need an example, just think Castaway. He’s the only subject matter at hand, yet he does an amazing job showing you how he’s thinking and feeling, at some points without even using words. Needless to say, Hanks hasn’t gotten rusty in the slightest; in fact, he’s shown that he’ll still be one of the best in the business until he takes his final bow.