After the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, a reign of piracy ensued that terrorized the shipping lanes along the east coast of Africa for nearly two decades. Anyone who idealizes anarchy should take note: in the absence of leadership, leaders emerged — and these virtual warlords were at least as tyrannical as their predecessors, and certainly more volatile. (I didn't see any of my anarchist friends moving to Somalia during the 20 years between governments.)
Captain Phillips tells the harrowing story of Richard Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship that was hijacked by a band of young Somalis in the spring of 2011. Incredibly, the Maersk Alabama was unescorted and her crew was armed with nothing but firehoses, despite ample knowledge that Somali pirates roamed the waters.
In the early days of American westward expansion, wagon trains and stagecoaches were similarly threatened by local bands as they transported people and commodities through unsafe territories. But their drivers and passengers carried rifles (leading later generations to call out "Shotgun!" when requesting the front passenger seat). They could also count on the protection of federal troops, who set up forts and patrolled the emigration areas. (I know — some might call this trespassing. And they might be right. But here we are.)
The Alabama had no such protection, and it carried no weapons. And it was alone in the water, away from the other cargo ships. Using radar to hunt their prey, the Somalis selected the Alabama in the way that a pride of lions might select a zebra. It was a single blip on the outskirts of the shipping lanes, away from the safety of the herd; it was the proverbial sitting duck.
These young pirates are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits.
Despite its tense theme, the film begins slowly, almost boringly, with Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) getting ready to go to work. He and his wife (Catherine Keener) make small talk about family and safety as she drives him to work. Then we watch Captain Phillips go through his usual routine on the ship. If this had been a film festival submission with unrecognized actors and no advance publicity, the screener probably would have popped it out of the DVD player ten minutes into the viewing and dropped it into the discard pile.
And that would have been a shame, because Captain Phillips is a nonstop suspense thriller, on a par with the original Die Hard movie. After that first tedious ten minutes, the tension doesn’t let up until the last frame of the film — despite a moment of unintended comic relief when the government agency that is called for help doesn’t pick up the phone. "Government shutdown!" someone called out in the audience.
Captain Phillips controls the rising panic he naturally feels and uses a calm, soothing voice as he tries to reason with the overwrought hijackers.The tension between what he feels and what he does is visible throughout the film. His men's lives are in his hands, but he is not a trained military man or intelligence agent. He couldn’t land a punch or aim a kick any better than you or I could; he's just a boat driver who probably wouldn't know what to do with an automatic rifle even if he managed to get one. Instead he uses his wits, planning diversions on the fly, weighing risks against potential outcomes, all the time trying to placate and calm his attackers. This heightens the emotional tension more than a physical fight would do, and it gives the film a strong tone of realism, more in the manner of United 93 (2006) than of the Bourne movies (2004, 2007), which were also directed by Paul Greengrass.
Captain Phillips gets additional depth from the backstory it provides for the hijackers. While never excusing them, it allows us to see the despair of poverty that leads young men like these to turn to piracy for their livelihood. At one point Phillips says to the ringleader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), "You have $30,000. That's enough. Take it and go."Muse scoffs at the amount. "I got six million last year," he says of an earlier kidnapping. Phillips is incredulous, and so are we. Six million? He had six million American dollars, and he is still living in ragged, barefoot poverty? Muse shrugs in response. "You got bosses. I got bosses," he says.
These young pirates do all the work and take all the risks for a pittance, while a boss somewhere is living fat, collecting the ransoms and booty and doling out a tiny commission to the workers. They are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits. In his research for Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt discovered that most drug dealers experience this same tyranny of the warlord. Street dealers earn little more than minimum wage, and they live in poverty. As with the Somali pirates, or the lioness who goes in for the kill, the "lion's share" goes to the ones sitting safely under a tree.
Despite his two Oscars and his stellar reputation, Tom Hanks' work has been a bit uneven of late, with such forgettable films as The Terminal (2004), The Ladykillers (2004), Elvis Has Left the Building (also 2004) and a slew of others leading up to Larry Crowne (2011). (Don't look for my reviews because I didn't even bother.) Captain Phillips is his best work in over a decade. The constant tension between the panic his character feels and the calm he must present to his captors is always present. And when that tension breaks — well, it's simply an unforgettable moment, which makes up for ten years of forgettable films.
But as good as Hanks is in this film, it isn't as good as the amazing work performed by the four Somalis (Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali) who will convince you that they were discovered on the deck of a pirate ship, not in a casting studio. They are beyond scary. They are seething with rage, as volatile as a sprung grenade, overwrought and underfed and starving for vengeance against anyone. Anyone. But of course, they aren't really pirates. All four are immigrants living in the growing Somali community of Minneapolis, and all four are remarkable in their debut roles. Director Greengrass has to be given tremendous credit, first for deciding to use untrained Somalis instead of Hollywood actors, and second for being able to elicit such realistic work from these first-time actors.
The only disappointment in terms of acting is Catherine Keener as Captain Phillips' wife. She disappears after those first dull ten minutes, and she never returns. What a waste of a fine, skilled actress. I suspect, however, that she had a larger role, possibly as her character waited at home worrying about her husband's fate, but that it ended up on the cutting room floor in the interest of time or emotional arc. This would have been a wise decision, I might add, since any interruption to the gripping, fast-paced suspense would have been a mistake. In fact, as much as I admire her work, I would have cut her part entirely and started the film after Phillips is onboard the ship. But this is a minor quibble about a superbly acted film.
September-October is usually considered the dumping ground between the summer blockbusters and the end-of-year Oscar contenders; we usually wallow through fall with movies that were considered good enough to pick up for distribution but not good enough to give them holiday box office slots. But we are three-for-three in this month with Prisoners, Gravity, and Captain Phillips. Go easy on the popcorn!