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— Nicolas Cage, Adaptation

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Director Paul Greengrass put tragic and terrifying historical incidents to film in both Bloody Sunday, about the Irish massacre in the 1970s, and United 93, a telling of the hijacked 9/11 flight that crashed into a field. This time, Greengrass shows us a hijacking that happened at sea. The story is ripped from 2009’s headlines, but the movie simplifies actual events.

Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a professional sailor, a soft man in his fifties, working for a shipping line. We join him on the Alabama, a container ship heading across the Indian Ocean. Two “fishing boats” approach. One turns around, but the second boat of four armed pirates boards the Alabama, taking the commanders hostage on the bridge, then looking for the rest of the crew on the darkened ship.

After an eventful search, the crew of the Alabama manage to equalize the odds, then convince the pirates to leave with $30,000 from the ship’s safe; no one has to be killed. However, at the last minute, they nab Phillips as they set off in a lifeboat from the Alabama straight for Somalia. Soon the U.S. Navy ships Bainbridge and Halyburton arrive and try to negotiate a surrender from the pirates and free the hostage Phillips..

In Over His Head

Men halfway around the world from each other, meet.
Men halfway around the world from each other, meet.

A Danish film, A Hijacking, released in U.S. theaters this year tackled the story of modern piracy, but focused instead on the negotiations. In the Danish film, the negotiations take four months. In Captain Phillips, the ordeal plays out over the course of a long, harrowing day. Needless to say, Captain Phillips is the more exciting of the two.

Greengrass makes it even more exciting by giving us extended scenes of tension, first a chase as the nimble pirates approach the lumbering Alabama, then a tens hide-and-seek sequence as the pirates sweep the ship, and finally an escalating standoff during the negotiations and show of military might.

Hanks is surprisingly well cast again as an everyman and unlikely hero. In Cast Away he was also delivering packages for a major transporter when events thrust him into survival mode. And in Saving Private Ryan, Hanks played a character who was deliberately not a career military man but a teacher drafted into war. Here he’s a graying suburbanite who happens to be the captain of a ship. Without the pirates, his job is mostly nagging his crew not to take too long a coffee break — something a graying suburbanite can handle just fine.

Hanks really earns his money, though, in the film’s final scene, which I won’t describe except to say that it’s surprisingly moving, and a release to a tension-filled movie that puts you through the wringer.

International Trade

Second billing goes to Barkhad Abdi, a Somali refugee in the United States making his acting debut as Muse, the leader of the hijackers. Greengrass cast American Somali refugees, and their gaunt, lanky, young frames contrast sharply with the well-fed union sailors on the cargo ships.

I first thought the pirates would be nameless bad guys with guns, but Greengrass lets us get to know them, just a little bit. Phillips is warned not to talk to them, but there are a few brief exchanges. Phillips tries to shame Muse, saying there must be better things to spend your life on than kidnapping. Muse says “maybe in America.”

Neither Hanks’ Phillips nor Abdi’s Muse have a sophisticated understanding of the geopolitics, but they are workaday foot soldiers in the larger game. The seem to repeat platitudes they’ve heard from their leaders, rather than speak from the heart. Muse says piracy is the same as collecting taxes to come thru their waters. Philips explains that some of his cargo was food for Africa. Muse says we wouldn’t need it if you hadn’t overfished our waters. None of those arguments stand up to scrutiny, but that’s about as deeply as these two men can communicate.

When Muse wants to threaten and impress Phillips, he brags that “last year we took a Greek ship. 6 million dollars.” Phillips challenges him to live up to his boast with “so what are you doing here?” Muse looks sheepish and says “I have bosses.” Phillips thinks he’s in the same boat, muttering “We all have bosses.”

Elephants and Flies

But none of these issues is as big as the elephant in the room. A massive container ship carrying who-knows-how-many-millions worth of cargo is hijacked by four armed amateurs. The United States military sends several naval vessels and a team of expert SEALs to save one hostage. You can’t help but ask: where were the ship’s security guards? A crew member introduced the idea when he said “They’re not payin’ me enough to fight pirates. I’m union.” Economists would call this an “externality” — passing on the cost of private business to the public. But U.S. Navy ships and SEALs are expensive; surely they have better things to do than challenge four young punks with cheap guns.

The third act is a standoff between the U.S. Navy and one little lifeboat. Because of the rah-rah action, you might mistake the film for a jingoistic celebration of America’s military might, until you realize how asymmetrical the situation is, and how careless the shipping line must have been to even allow things to get this far.

But as Greengrass did in United 93 and Bloody Sunday, he steers away from the politics and tries to keep the audience in the visceral experience of the moment. Maybe he doesn’t completely succeed quite as well; both my wife and I were marveling at the absurdity of there being any tension between two so completely outmatched opponents. Still, Captain Phillips is a harrowing ride.