I always hope that, if I ever find myself in a perilous situation, I would be able to stay strong and be heroic. However, I’m pretty sure that running and hiding would be my first (and likely last) instinct. Since I tend to shout at heroes in films (“Why are you staying to fight? Run away and hide, dumb Gladiator”), it was really refreshing, nail-bitingly wonderfully refreshing, to watch someone knowing death is coming, actually attempt to be heroic. Captain Phillips is based on a book published by the real Capt. Richard Phillips, a married father of 2 from Vermont who had to survive an attack by real-life pirates on the cargo ship he was commanding going around the Horn of Africa in 2009. Tom Hanks brings Capt. Phillips, a young curmudgeon who is resisting the changes in society, to life. He’s even a little prophetic – having his crew practice a pirate attack drill just at the moment a pair of pirate skiffs appear on the horizon.
Luckily, they are able to drive off the would-be pirates and live to fight another day, though the crew’s attitude about fighting off pirates not being part of their job description really pisses him off. Thankfully, they’re ready when the moment comes, and it comes again rather quickly. Hanks gives a definite tour de force as Phillips; playing a wise man who knows when he’s beaten, but still tries to think through all the possibilities to save both his own life and the lives of his crew. Thankfully, that tension on the cargo ship actually resolves fairly quickly as we approach the part of the story the world already knew about – the arrival of Seal Team 6.
One of the best things about this film is the casting. None of the cast, beyond Hanks (and a cameo by Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife), is particularly well known. There are a few character actors that you’d recognize, but none famous enough to be able to guess whether they’ll live or die. A lot of films based on real stories can elevate minor parts with casting choices alone, which can change how the tension of the film proceeds. I loved that the supporting cast in Captain Phillips was exceptional, but unknown enough as to not distract from the main story.
Now I also have to admit to completely burying the lead – the break out star in this film. Barkhad Abdi is Muse, the captain of the Somali pirates. When we first meet him, he is awakened in his village by the underlings of a warlord who are demanding more money. They’re forced to go out and be pirates to pay him. We later find out he made $6 million the year before. Muse is scary, both in his carriage – particularly thin and wiry – and the calm tone he uses to reassure Phillips that everything will be alright. He rules 3 other men (almost boys) and has a desperation that belies that calm exterior. The character is hateful – mean, ruthless, etc. – but played brilliantly by Somali actor Abdi.
The interaction between Phillips and Muse is definitely the heart of the story, but avoids all cliché. Phillips never feels bad for Muse, and you can tell Phillips’ is only trying to help the pirates to avoid getting himself killed when it all goes south. Muse, trying to keep things together and come out ahead, only listens to Phillips when he deems it’s logical for him (Another pet peeve – bad guys who fail to act in their own best interest – thankfully avoided).
Captain Phillips is really intense, but wonderfully and thrillingly told. If my fingernails weren’t acrylic at the moment, they would all have been bitten off within the first 20 minutes. The length of the movie is hardly felt thanks to the amazing performance that Hanks gives, particularly at the end. I’ll admit, I cry at a lot of things, but rarely at movies this tense, so my tears were particularly well earned by Hanks. Regardless of whether or not the real-life Phillips was anything like the heroic version Hanks’ presents, this movie was worth the money.