In “Captain Phillips” we meet the captain (Tom Hanks) in the office of his comfy Vermont digs as he checks his impending flight to Oman in 2009. Driving to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener), Phillips worries that their son isn’t taking school seriously. “The world we knew is gone. Getting a good job and keeping your head down no longer guarantees success,” he says. With these prophetic words we are introduced to the screen adaptation of Phillips’ book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.”
We next see Phillips in Oman, decked out in a captain’s uniform inspecting the Maersk Alabama as he boards the modern multilevel American container ship that he will pilot around the Horn of Africa to Kenya. Aerial shots show the ship loaded with hundreds of containers, including many laden with food and fresh water, destined for African nations in need.
Phillips’s routine establishes his work ethic. He notes padlocks left unhinged, and, moments after meeting crew members on their coffee break, orders the crew back to work.
In his quarters Phillips reads a corporate email containing the protocol to follow if the ship is attacked by pirates. He orders the crew to lock down the cargo and run security drills.
Meanwhile henchmen toting rifles and nasty attitudes arrive at a Somali encampment where they demand the indentured recruits secure a large haul for “the boss.” Muse — played with anxious ambition by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi — is among the few to spearhead pirating operations. Muse takes his time selecting a crew of three, including his teen nephew, who brings a clump of amphetamine-laden leaves known as khat. Muse’s competitor puts together a similar crew and the eight head off to a small ship that serves as their base camp.
While running his security drills, Phillips spots a pair of skiffs at the perimeter of the ship’s radar. The fast-moving boats are headed directly for the Alabama. Assuming the attitude of a coiled snake, Phillips springs into action.
The movie smartly switches back and forth between the perspectives of Muse’s group and Phillips, who defends his ship and his crew by every means possible, even though, for reasons never clarified, the ship is unarmed.
Through Muse’s struggle to prevent his overzealous cohorts from unnecessarily shedding blood, director Paul Greengrass makes the case that many Somali pirates come from a world of few choices.
Although we begin to sympathize with Muse, we retain our connection to Phillips because Hanks emotes his character’s thoughts, credibly depicting Phillips’s uncertain journey.
Largely eschewing artificial enhancements, the soundtrack is punctuated not only by gunfire, but by the characters’ panicked breathing as the advantage crosses from one side to the other. Rather than an action blockbuster, Greengrass delivers a thoughtful film that examines tense global politics from various individual perspectives. We root for the pirates to be defeated, but we also root for Muse, who appears to be caught in an impossible situation.