When the MV Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates in the April of 2009 it was largely viewed through the lens of how the newly elected Barack Obama responded to the incident. It wasn’t exactly the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it was a test of sorts for the young president, and by ordering Navy SEAL snipers to take out the pirates he more or less proved that while he might be less outwardly hawkish than his predecessor, he still wasn’t one to be messed with. Between that and handful of jokes about how odd it is for there to still be high seas piracy in the 21st century the world had heard learned pretty much everything they cared to hear about this incident and everyone moved on with their lives. Still, there was a little bit more story to tell. How exactly do modern pirates board large merchant ships? What do the crews do when these attacks happen? And just who are these East Africans involved in this practice and what drives them to it? That’s probably what led Paul Greengrass to choose this hijacking as the subject of his latest “ripped from the headlines” thriller: Captain Phillips.
The film is in many ways a simple reenactment of the Maersk Alabama’s ill-fated journey around the Horn of Africa. The titular captain (played by Tom Hanks) is well aware of the fact that there have been pirates plaguing these waters and he diligently drills his crew about what to do in the case of an attempted hijacking. Little does he know that a group of Somali pirates led by a young man named Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) has specifically targeted his ship and intends to seize it in due time. In due time that’s exactly what happens; four pirates armed with AK-47s manage to board the ship and take Captain Phillips hostage while the crew hides below. From here a tense standoff begins which will place Captain Phillips, the Maersk Alabama, and these four pirates in headlines around the world.
Paul Greengrass is of course known for making intense movies about real world events like Bloody Sunday and his masterpiece United 93. That later movie is of course the film that Captain Phillips is ultimately going to have to be compared against even though that is kind of an impossible film to live up to. 9/11 is an immeasurably more important and dramatic event than the two-bit hijacking of a boat. If anything, what the film Captain Phillips reveals is that the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama a fairly minor incident that was made important by the rather extreme response that it received from the American Navy. The pirates in the film are, well, fuck ups. They’re desperate young men with limited resources doing something that was certainly wrong but not overly villainous. I’m not trying to excuse their conduct, which was certainly dangerous for everyone involved, but these were common criminals not too far removed from the type of people who’d rob a gas station. In the film there’s something almost comical in the way these guys find themselves facing the entire might of the U.S. military for what they perceive as a rather pedestrian crime.
So, this doesn’t have the sweep or importance of United 93, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very well made film that on its face plays out on a larger stage. The Maersk Alabama is on its face a very interesting location for such a film. There have been very few movies that have used a modern merchant ship as a location, so there’s something kind of unique about the film from the word “go.” The casting of Tom Hanks was also really smart; he has exactly the relatable everyman quality that his role required and I can’t really imagine anyone else playing the part. Also, his work in the film’s final scenes is a master-class. The lead pirate played by Barkhad Abdi is also a pretty interesting character who’s played well by the unknown actor they’ve found to portray him. I would have maybe liked to see a little more of what his life was like in Somalia before the incident in order to better understand him, but Greengrass does do a really good job keeping him from being a stereotypical villain.
Once the principal action begins the film manages to be pretty tense… at least as tense as a movie can be when everyone in the audience knows from news reports exactly how it’s going to end. I guess you could say that United 93 had been similarly “spoiled,” but that was a story where we knew that everyone involved was doomed and that brings a whole lot more weight to a story than one where we know that things will end happily for our “hero” and not so happily for the “villains.” I almost wonder if what they really would have had to do in order to recreate United 93’s sense of tragic inevitability was abandon Captain Phillips’ point of view altogether and made the pirates into the film’s de facto protagonists heading towards disaster. Without that kind of sense of dread, the fact that we know the ending really only hurts the film rather than help it. I think what we have here is a simple case of “too soon,” not “too soon” in the sense that people are still sensitive about the story, but “too soon” in the sense that we all too recently saw this play out on CNN and that this kind of makes the film feel redundant. That’s not to say I dislike the film, in fact I admire it greatly and think it’s about as well made as it could possibly be, but it doesn’t really bring a whole lot new to this story.
***1/2 out of Four