Twenty years ago, "Captain Phillips" might have been a very different movie. The true story of shipping vessel captain Richard Phillips, taken hostage in April 2009 by a crew of Somali pirates, would likely have become an exercise in fireball-fueled, hoorah xenophobia. You can imagine the cast: Steven Segal, perhaps, plus a thousand dark-skinned expendables.
But "Captain Phillips" is something new. It exists in a post-9/11 world that, for Americans at least, feels increasingly large and complicated. The movie's focus is on Phillips, a blue-collar Bostonian nicknamed "Irish" by his captors and played by an excellent (though imperfectly accented) Tom Hanks. What makes the movie so compelling, though, is a wider political perspective that helps us understand and even pity the villains.
They're convincingly played by four Somali-American actors led by Barkhad Abdi as their frail but ferocious captain, Muse (pronounced moo-SEE). They're subsistence-level fishermen, not political zealots, and the bloated container ships of the West are their prey. When Muse and his men conquer the enormous MV Maersk Alabama using just a tiny skiff and an aluminum ladder -- an astounding sequence with the realistic thrill of a nature documentary -- it's hard not to feel awe mingled with horror.
Not that our loyalties ever shift. But as each captain resorts to increasingly desperate measures to outwit and outlast the other, it becomes clear that larger forces -- economic, political, military -- are at work. Muse has warlord bosses to answer to, while Phillips becomes dimly aware that his own government may decline to save him. "Whatever happens," says a disembodied voice of American authority, "Captain Phillips does not reach Somalia."
This is the kind of gripping thriller for the age of globalization that director Paul Greengrass has been honing in movies like "United 93" and "The Green Zone." His results have been hit-and-miss, but "Captain Phillips" (written by Billy Ray from Phillips' memoir) is a near-perfect movie, a powerful combination of the personal and the political. "There's gotta be something more than . . . kidnapping people," Phillips tells his captor, but that's an appeal to Western reason. "Maybe in America, Irish," Muse says. "Maybe in America."
PLOT The captain of a shipping vessel is taken hostage by Somali pirates. Based on a true story.
RATING PG-13 (sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use)
CAST Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
BOTTOM LINE Heart-pounding action against a backdrop of tricky politics -- not to mention a terrific turn from Hanks -- make this a tense, gripping, thriller for the age of globalization.
TOM HANKS TIRED OF PLAYING REAL PEOPLE
Tom Hanks has had enough of playing real people.
In Paul Greengrass' docudrama, "Captain Phillips," he plays Richard Phillips, the captain of a cargo ship famously taken by Somali pirates in 2009.
Earlier this year, Hanks made his Broadway debut playing New York journalist Mike McAlary in Nora Ephron's "Lucky Guy." And later this year, he stars as Walt Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks," about the making of "Mary Poppins." "I got to get out of this racket," Hanks said sheepishly at a recent New York Film Festival event. "It's killing me."
But playing real-life people comes with various pressures of authenticity. Verisimilitude is a primary aim for Greengrass, who made the true-life tales "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday" with similar documentarylike realism.
Hanks met several times with Phillips at his Vermont home to help prepare for the role.
"You don't want to be an idiot," said Hanks. "You don't want to ask, 'What were you feeling? What was it like? What were you feeling? Are you a hero?' -- you know, ask questions like most journalists do when the time comes."
-- The Associated Press