Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks Goes to Sea

captain-phillipsThere are two top-rank performances in “Captain Phillips,” the new Paul Greengrass movie. One is by Tom Hanks, and it’s a striking reminder of what a meticulous and affecting actor this most likable of Hollywood stars still is. The other, by Barkhad Abdi, is a wonderful surprise. Abdi, born in Somalia and raised in Minnesota, never has acted before. When he and three friends heard about an open casting call for the movie in Minneapolis (a city with a large Somali community), they turned out to audition for the parts of Somalian pirates; to their own amazement, they got hired. Now we see that Abdi is a natural — a performer with an undeniable gift who holds his own in every one of his many scenes with Hanks. The sense of discovery in watching him is one of the most pleasurable aspects of the movie.

Greengrass, a man committed to documentary tone (as was evident in his great 9/11 film, “United 93,” and in his two “Bourne” pictures), naturally went to sea to make this seafaring movie. He shot most of it on the rolling Mediterranean swells around Malta (his signature hand-held camerawork sways with the waves), and the sequences of waterborne action and feats of navigational composition, which must have been exhaustingly difficult to achieve, are marvels of location filmmaking.

The movie is based on the well-known true story of Capt. Richard Phillips (played by Hanks), whose abduction by pirates in 2009 ignited a sensational high-seas standoff between his captors and the U.S. Navy. Greengrass gives us a few introductory scenes set in Vermont to establish Phillips as an unexceptional family man (Catherine Keener cameos as his wife) who’s uneasy about his latest job. He’s on his way to Oman to ferry a load of cargo to Kenya on an American-run vessel called the Maersk Alabama. The trip will take him down along the coast of Somalia, which is what worries him; it’s an area infested with a new breed of pirates, whose successful demands for multimillion-dollar ransoms have become a costly annoyance for international shipping concerns. (Phillips’ decision to pass closer to shore than recommended outraged several members of his 20-man crew, who subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Maersk’s operators.)

The pirates are a scourge, but the movie’s script, by Billy Ray (whose most recent feature credit is “The Hunger Games”), illuminates the miserable circumstances that have turned them into marauders. In the Somalian fishing town of Eyl, we see a tribal elder directing the selection of amateur pirates. Many are just teenagers. Their country has been brutalized by an unending civil war, and foreign trawlers have illegally vacuumed up the fish from their coastal waters, leaving these young fishermen unemployed and desperate.

On board the Maersk Alabama, Hanks’ captain, in roomy khakis and a trim salt-and-pepper beard, sees two pirate skiffs coming up from behind. He executes some clever defensive maneuvers, but after an excitingly well-constructed action sequence, four pursuers manage to board his ship. (Commercial vessels at the time were prohibited from carrying defensive weapons; the pirates were brandishing AK-47s.) Two of the pirates (Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahat M. Ali) are young and nervous; a third (Faysal Ahmed) is a khat-chewing hothead who’s clearly dangerous. But the group’s leader, a man named Muse (Abdi), is something else. He’s sly and suspicious, and Abdi, with his skeletal face and unreadable eyes, projects an unsettling menace at first, before slowly opening up his character to reveal more conflicted emotions.

Greengrass cranks up considerable tension as Abdi conducts a search of the ship to locate missing crew members. When Phillips tries to buy the pirates off with cash from the ship’s strongbox, they refuse the offer; it’s millions they’ve been dreaming of. Finally, they flee in a motorized lifeboat, taking the captain with them. From this point, the movie becomes a study in claustrophobic intimacy, with Hanks charting his character’s dwindling chances of survival with little more than the tormenting uncertainty in his eyes.

From worldwide news reports of the time and from Phillips’ subsequent memoirs, we know what will ultimately happen. It’s a tribute to the director’s skill that he keeps us wondering whether this maritime confrontation will really play out the same way again.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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