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A well-crafted, tense docu-drama centered around a clash of wills
on October 13, 2013
Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips is the story of a 2009 incident that most people probably still remember, when a group of Somali pirates boarded an American cargo freighter, the Maersk Alabama, and after failing to gain control of the ship, took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage, resulting in the US Navy mounting an intense rescue operation to recover Captain Phillips. Directed by Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) from a script by Billy Ray (Breach, The Hunger Games) based on a book written by Phillips and Stephan Talty about the incident, Captain Phillips is a well-crafted, tense docu-drama that captures the intensity of the events as they played out, from the moment the Maersk Alabama first sees the approaching pirate crafts to the moment when Navy Seals make their assault, ending the situation with deadly finality and the successful rescue.
More than anything else, the core of Captain Phillips is the contest of wills that takes place between Phillips (a finely nuanced performance by veteran Tom Hanks) and the pirate leader Muse (an amazingly intense performance by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi). Phillips is determined to do everything he can to keep the pirates from gaining control of the ship and to keep his crew from being captured and held hostage, while Muse is determined to succeed in achieving the pirates' version of the American dream, against all odds and no matter what risks he and his men must take. Hanks' Phillips is a man who desperately hangs on to his sense of calm in the face of mounting danger because he knows it's his - and his crew's - only path to safety. And survival. Abdi's Muse is more complex. On the one hand, he displays a relentless cunning and daring, combined with the ability to take the lead, that invites your unwilling admiration even as he engages in threats and brutality to gain and keep control of the situation. But at the same time, he shows an incredible naivety about just what he is doing, not thinking beyond securing his catch of the day. At one point he tells an astonished Phillips of his plan to go to America with the money he'll get from the ransom and buy a car. There is also a certain hubris about Muse that makes his character at least pitiable if not actually sympathetic as things begin to go wrong and he feels his control - and his chances for his big score - rapidly slipping away from him. This is most particularly brought home in the form of an increasingly unstable pirate named Najee (Faysal Ahmed) whom Muse had hand-picked for the operation but who now is threatening to kill their hostage.
The musical score by Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) is very well done, adding to the sense of rising tension without distracting from what is happening on the screen. And in addition to the music, Greengrass makes excellent use of sound, particularly the sounds of a ship gone dead in the water, creating a sense of an alien space that the pirates have invaded when they go searching for the crew, each random creak and clang breaking the silence wearing at the pirates' khat-frayed nerves. (Note: khat is a plant native to the region whose leaves, when chewed, act as an amphetamine-like stimulant, and all of the pirates are seen chewing khat since the operation began).
Highly, highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a taut thriller that will keep your attention gripped to the screen for its entire 134 minutes.