The Thinker

Review: Captain Phillips

One of my dreams has been to circumnavigate the world be freighter. It can be done, you know, but it helps if your schedule is flexible. Freighters are constantly streaming between ports. There are often excess quarters for rent, plus there is convenient ship’s grub, which is usually decent. Your ship may not offer high speed Internet access, or even Internet access at all, but if you find cruise ships annoying and planes too quick, and just want to stare at a lot of open sea then it’s a great alternative. It’s all this plus you get to see ports and countries that a lot of tourists don’t.

After seeing the movie Captain Phillips, well, perhaps I’ll take a pass on seeing the world by freighter. I certainly won’t take a freighter anywhere near the Somali coast of Africa, at least not until the piracy is wiped out. Some women might make an exception if their captain was Tom Hanks, who plays Captain Richard Phillips. The movie is closely based on the book by Phillips, which catalogs his harrowing encounter with Somali pirates in 2009. Phillips even helped write the screenplay.

The movie was surprisingly suspenseful considering that I (and probably you) know the gist of the plot. It was all over the news at the time because of the dramatic way that it ended. Most of these hijackings end up with the ships in Somali ports and the crew and ship ransomed. At least by the time the MV Maersk made its famous voyage, the piracy problem had gotten so acute that the U.S. Navy heavily patrolled these waters. It won’t come as a surprise to you that the MV Maersk didn’t happen to be near any U.S. Navy ships when it encountered pirates.

Hanks is the handsome and handsomely paid star of record in this movie, but arguably the cast of unknown Somali-American actors who play the pirates steal the show. Recruited from a Somali community in Minnesota of all places, they seem at home in a Somali port, on skiffs at sea and crazily scaling the sides of this very tall freighter. Barkhad Abdi plays the chief pirate, Muse, in all his lankiness. Muse though is not into killing. It’s hard to get ransom for dead crewmembers. He is into money and chewing khat, a cheap plant native to Somali that acts as a stimulant, an important characteristic for men too busy to sleep. It also decreases appetite, which explains their malnourished looks. Muse, Bilal, Najee and Elmi are very efficient pirates and have little trouble hijacking the freighter in spite of fire hoses along the side of the ship designed to repel boarders like them.

What you get is a movie in two parts. The first part is the hijacking itself and the pirates’ attempts to find and capture the crew hidden down in the hold. While that tactic eventually fails, they are able to escape using a lifeboat on the ship with Phillips as their hostage. It’s the latter half of the movie as the U.S. Navy and Navy SEALS finally zero in on them that should really get your heart aflutter, because this lifeboat with a motor and supplies is enclosed, making it next to impossible to board and rescue Phillips. The chaos is hair-raising and feels utterly realistic, which it no doubt is with Phillips helping with the screenplay. Director Paul Greengrass knows this suspense territory well. If it seems familiar, it may be because you saw his other movie United 93 (2006), which chronicles the fate of the hijacked flight on September 11, 2001 that ended up crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Greengrass knows how to get you reaching for the Valium.

The payoff is not just the suspenseful conclusion, but in Hanks’s acting at the end of the movie. Yes, the film’s denouement is in some ways the highlight of this movie. You won’t be surprised to find out the bad guys lose, but poor Phillips is one messed up and in total shock dude. The scene gives Hanks a chance to prove that he may be a handsome face, but he is also a hell of an actor.

A cruise ship now sounds a lot more inviting than traveling by freighter, providing it is not the Carnival Triumph. Instead of risking piracy, I’ll go for the suspense of seeing if I can finish the cruise without dysentery.

3.3 out of 4 points. You won’t need any khat to stay awake through this movie.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 

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