A minefield of potential pitfalls awaits any filmmaker who chooses to tell a story still fresh from recent coverage by the 24-hour news media. There's pressure to get the details exactly right, but also to move beyond the spin that always accompanies public accounts of politically charged events. Captain Phillips offers a blow-by-blow depiction of the 2009 hijacking of container ship Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of Capt. Richard Phillips by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa. Known for his documentary-inspired approach to making narrative films based on true events, British director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93) conducted his own research into the Somali pirate phenomenon before he and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) tackled Captain Phillips. The result is a heart-pounding action thriller that places its straightforward tale in the context of globalization and its resulting economic hardship. It reminds us how seldom the big picture finds its way to the big screen, at least in Hollywood films.
A middle-aged Tom Hanks is a natural fit for the role of Phillips, a professional man of relatively few words who works in the largely working class world of international shipping. But Hanks' presence actually takes a backseat to the style and methods of the film's director. Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) used two or three highly mobile film cameras in mostly natural light to shoot lengthy scenes from beginning to end. Greengrass seldom blocks his scenes in the conventional way, where actors are assigned to hit marks at specific times. It's a spontaneous way of working that leads to all kinds of improvised and unexpected moments — if one can pull it off. For the most part, this technique gives Captain Phillips the desired impact of real-life events, though the natural byproduct of shaky camerawork is not for everyone. Surprisingly effective performances from the supporting cast contribute substantially here, especially those by the mostly first-time actors of Somali descent in the complex roles of the pirates.
Captain Phillips also provides a window into a unique set of circumstances that now appears to be receding into the past. There reportedly have been more than 100 successful hijackings of container ships on international waters since 2005 and more than $1 billion paid in ransom money by insurance companies. Container ships still carry 90 percent of the world's essential goods, but changes in international maritime laws, which formerly prohibited armed guards on container ships, have recently made piracy harder to pull off. But the economic realities that led to widespread modern piracy remain firmly in place.
As depicted in Captain Phillips, the pirate captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is a mere middle manager in a large crime organization with the same global reach as the shipping companies he and his men target. Many observers point out that the Somali pirates came into existence only after illegal (and international) corporate fishing depleted regional waters of primary natural resources that previously provided work and sustenance. As the film moves toward its inevitable climax, a proud Muse tells Phillips of a recent $6 million haul. The salaried American captain wonders why that wasn't enough. "I've got bosses," Muse says. "We've all got bosses," Phillips responds. Amen to that. — KEN KORMAN