Movie review: 'Captain Phillips' captures terror, tension of 2009 hijacking off Somalia coast

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Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) makes it clear from the beginning that he's not there to pamper or befriend the crew of the Maersk Alabama.

His job is to command the ship loaded with 2,400 tons of commercial cargo and 200 tons of food aid and other goods in colorful containers stacked like Legos the size of train cars. "About done with that coffee?" he asks some of the crew taking a break early in "Captain Phillips."

'Captain Phillips'

3.5 stars = Very Good
Ratings explained

  • Starring:

    Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi.

  • Rating:

    PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.

Before their journey is over, however, he is willing to give his life for these men and the task at hand.

He is an experienced merchant mariner who lives in Vermont with his family, including his nurse-wife who tells him on the way to the airport, "I know this is what we do, this is our life but it seems the world is moving so fast."

They share worries large and small but neither has any idea they will be caught in the vise grip of the conflict between the haves and the have-nots: The Alabama vs. the Somali pirates who hijack the container ship and plan to ransom it or its captain.

"Captain Phillips" dramatizes the events of 2009 when seafaring Somalis targeted the Alabama but didn't count on the experience, shrewdness or bravery of the New Englander. (Whether that slid into foolhardiness or was fueled by corporate greed that put the crew at risk is another matter, headed for the courts.)

When he first sees an alert about pirates, the captain orders unannounced security drills but soon finds himself in a real-world situation with armed men speeding toward the vessel.

The Vermonter initially outsmarts them but they seize control of the ship, guns and tempers blazing, with the calmest, most commanding of the lot a skinny young man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi). "Look at me. Look at me," he orders. "I'm the captain now."

And thus begins a potentially deadly game of cat and mouse on and off the Alabama, with lives of pirates, hostages and potential rescuers at stake.

"Captain Phillips" is set against the backdrop of a world where the fishermen have nothing to catch -- because of industrial overfishing -- so they turn to kidnapping. When the American suggests there must be other options, Muse responds, "Maybe in America."

That is where "Captain Phillips" departs from the usual simplistic action pictures with heroes on one side of the legal/moral/ethical line and villains on the other. The Somalis are guilty of reprehensible actions but they live with a desperation unknown to most Americans.

Director Paul Greengrass gambled on first-time actors to play the Somalis, and Mr. Abdi -- who was born in Mogadishu, reared in Yemen and moved to Minnesota at age 14 -- is exemplary as pirate captain Muse. He, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali emerged from an open casting call in Minneapolis attracting 1,000 hopefuls.

It's impossible to turn on the television without seeing Mr. Hanks, who has a gut-wrenching moment near the movie's end, or Richard Phillips but even if you vaguely remember the siege, you may not recall the details or fates of the Somalis or American crew members.

As he did with "United 93" about the passengers and crew who refused to allow the Flight 93 hijackers to reach their target in Washington, D.C., Mr. Greengrass has a knack for taking a true-life story, re-creating it with authenticity and giving it fresh jolts of action, energy, tension and humanity.

He allows us to climb into the claustrophobic confines of a cabin where the best weapons are intelligence, courage and a willingness to sacrifice ... but never, ever surrender.

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Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM


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