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Review: ‘Captain Phillips,’ Tom Hanks in a Gritty, Exhausting, and Rewarding Thriller

Tom Hanks in 'Captain Phillips' (Sony)
Tom Hanks in ‘Captain Phillips’ (Sony)

A rock-solid thriller that rests comfortably on a first-rate Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips is a no-frills drama from director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray.

Drawing from the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephen Talty, the film version is very much a traditional real-life suspense piece, revolving almost entirely around the titular character, with cutaways to other scenes only as necessary to drive forward the plot. It’s not a spoiler to say that the outcome of the tale, based on true events, is never in doubt — or else why hire the heroic All-American Tom Hanks? — but to the credit of all involved, that does not take away measurably from the mood and tension that develops in an authentic fashion.

After an entirely unnecessary and prosaic prologue, the story proper begins in April 2009 with Captain Phillips’ arrival in a friendly port city in Oman, where he boards his cargo ship and listens to his first mate describe the path they will be taking around the horn of Africa to Mombasa, Kenya. All 20 crew members — including key supporting players Michael Chernus and Chris Mulkey — know the potential dangers of such a trip; though it’s not stated explicity in the film, attacks by pirates seeking to seize ships for the purpose of demanding ransom were still on the uptick in 2009, with more than 90 incidents the previous year.

Parallel to the shipboard set-up, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), also disrespectfully called Skinny, assembles his crew of pirates on a beach in Somalia. He will captain one of two skiffs that will attempt to board their target, which is any ship that looks in the least bit vulnerable. A mothership / fishing boat will trail behind the skiffs, but it’s entirely up to the captains of the small, more nimble vessels to complete their nervy mission with a handful of men armed with machine guns. Muse takes on the excitable, easily-provoked yet strong Najee (Faysal Ahmed) and the young, inexperienced Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), among others.

Phillips and his crew follow the book, doing everything in their power to evade capture, but the huge, lumbering ship is limited in its defenses: the crew is not armed, and they are hundreds of miles away — and many, many hours at sea — from any friendly assistance. With the piracy reported to the U.S. authorities (the ship flies under an American flag), the men must wait and wait and wait, and try not to get killed by desperate men who are compelled to maximize the ransom they demand.

The inevitability of their path is thrown off-course when Captain Phillips agrees to a selfless concession in behalf of his men in order to guarantee their safety. That leads to an extended stand-off that exhausts everyone involved and eventually ups the ante.

From one perspective, the entire movie is about the meaning of captaincy. Captain Phillips is tough but fair, enforcing high standards of conduct on board ship. He has a wife and children, and feels responsible to guide and protect them even when he is far away from home. He follows those same principles with the men under his charge, guiding and protecting them even when is not in their presence. Muse captains his tiny crew with absolute authority; he is not without compassion or sympathy, but he is forced to rule with an iron fist (aka his machine gun). When Muse and his men capture the ship, he informs Captain Phillips that he is now the captain, and should be addressed as such; “Captain” Muse begins addressing Phillips as “Irish” to reinforce his loss of authority.

How Phillips and Muse conduct themselves and exercise their captaincy, in adverse conditions and under extreme pressure, forms the spine of the story. One can only wonder if the outcome would have been any different if the two men been switched at birth. The resolution of Captain Phillips provides the emotional climax that is needed for this gritty and grueling thriller.

The film opens wide throughout the Metroplex tonight (Thursday, October 10).