Somali Pirates take a Sea Captain Hostage in ‘Captain Phillips’

Starring Tom Hanks as the captain of the Maersk-Alabama, a U.S. container ship hijacked in 2009, the movie charts the emotional story of Somali pirates taking an American sea captain hostage, while simultaneously exposing the vast economic divide that sets the event in motion.

As the film begins in Vermont, we met a pensive Captain Phillips (Hanks) getting ready to leave his family to sail cargo halfway around the world. Several thousand miles away in a poor Somali Village, we are also introduced to a former coastal fisherman Muse (Barkhad Abdi) who is seeking cohorts to hijack one of the high-value ships that passes through his coast every day.

As he makes his selection from a group of several men desperate for the task, the stark divide of the characters economic peril is painfully clear as a complete picture of the world the pirates come from is shown. It’s then we learn the history of Somali piracy and the economic imperatives that drive it.

Fast forward a few scenes later and Phillips and his crew are on the Horn of Africa heading for Kenya with food and water supplies for the starving. Phillips knows he’s headed into pirate territory and keeps his crew on alert conducting drills. It’s during one of these drills they spot the pirates on their tail, and although they manage to avert a hijack he knows it’s just a matter of time before they return. Armed with machine guns and a determination to get rich the only way they know how, the pirates return the next day with a mission to board the ship. That’s when the action intensifies as director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “The Bourne Supremacy”) shoots in a very in-the-moment style which keeps the adrenaline going.

Once on board, the pirates are elated to discover that’s it’s an American ship but things quickly go haywire and they end up in a lifeboat with a miserly $30,000 and Phillips who they are planning to hold hostage for a bigger payday. A malnourished young foot soldier in a complex pirate-ring funded by powerful investors, Muse knows he can’t return empty-handed.

A realistic film that explores modern day piracy, it’s a true story that brilliantly balances the adventure of being at sea with the claustrophobia that comes along with being forced below deck for days.

What makes this movie so engaging and intense is Greengrass’ direction of a tight, terse screenplay which is adapted from the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea” written by the real Richard Phillips. His direction is assured and yet light and he opts for a sense of realism and minimalism.

The Somali pirates are no ordinary criminals and live up to that ruthless title with their unpredictability and unwillingness to honor anyone else’s rules or timetables. Played by first time actors, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali, they all deliver solid performances in drawing the audience empathetically into their individual plights. Particularly brilliant is Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the pirate’s leader who refuses to give up even as the situation spirals out of control. His capacity for menace as well as compassion and contemplation is tremendous.

In “Captain Phillips” the emotional highs and lows are extreme and Greengrass does a terrific job of boiling down a large scale world problem to its most minute human elements and emotions. He lets the scenario play through to its logical conclusion, involving the audience throughout the characters’ development. We feel just as confined and frustrated as they do on the life boat and just as trapped in the siege as they are.

“I wanted veracity. I wanted to convey the reality and immediacy of the event, as it happened,” shares Greengrass. “You have to earn the right to the audience’s attention and you can’t ever take it for granted.”

Compelling, thrilling and thought-provoking “Captain Phillips” is one of the most involving and well directed films to be released this year and is highly recommended for anyone looking for intelligent thrills.

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