Captain Phillips is the hero of Paul Greengrass’ tense action thriller, powerfully realised by Tom Hanks, in one of the greatest roles of his career.
Billy Ray’s excellent script starts low-key. Richard Phillips is just an ordinary guy, driving to the airport in Vermont with his wife (Catherine Keener), bound for Oman, where he is to take control of a large American cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama.
In transporting the goods ‘as fast as possible’ to his destination, Mombasa, Phillips and his crew have to navigate the pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast.
In an audacious display of tenacity and desperation, two skiffs and a mother ship track the Alabama, and while one gives up, and the mother ship flees, a battered open boat containing four heavily armed young Somalis, powered by two dilapidated outboard motors, pursues, boards and then takes a captive in a closed life boat: Captain Phillips.
The shock and disbelief of the crew, as they watch the four desperate young men brave huge waves, powerful fire hoses and flares to hook their makeshift metal ladder onto the high deck, is unforgettable, as is the relentless climb up and up – until their sandaled and bare feet touch deck – where their AK-47s quickly gain them the upper hand.
Paul Greengrass selected his four amateur pirate leads from members of the Somali community in Minneapolis.
The cat-and-mouse game of the pirate leader, Abduwali Muse, played with a courageous watchful naivete by Barkhad Abdi, intent on finding the hidden crew is only the baseline of Greengrass’ tension.
The arrival of an American Navy gunship, bristling with new technology, and the falling from the skies of grim, supersized Navy Seals makes the plight of the tiny lifeboat, its pirates and its hostage even more perilous.
‘Captain Phillips must never reach Somali shores’, the Captain of the gunship is told. The $10 million the pirates demand is not their only imperative: powerful gang bosses will exert revenge if they are unsuccessful. What choices do they have? Greengrass’ political points are sharp and well made.
Based on Richard Phillips’ subsequent memoir, a successful rescue is never in doubt – yet the spectacle of Naval might against a desperate quartet of poverty stricken ex-fishermen, even moves Phillips – abused and threatened in their midst to pity.
‘There must be something more than being a fisherman and taking people hostage’, Phillips says to Muse.
‘Maybe in America,’ he replies.
And that’s the tragedy.