Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips” offers riveting look into the issue of piracy


“Captain Phillips” opens on the tiny town of Underhill, Vermont where merchant mariner Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is preparing for the voyage of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama from the Port ­of Salalah, Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. In accordance with NATO advisory, the ship is to transport food, water and other aid supplies to Africa. Though Phillips is aware of the vague threat of piracy off the Somali coast, he must proceed with this relatively routine assignment.

As the Maersk rounds the Horn of Africa, another crew prepares to set sail. In the coastal city of Ely, Somalia, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) receives orders from a local warlord to hijack the Maersk and plunder its cargo. Whereas the staff of the Maersk is completely unarmed, Muse and his three-man crew set out with AK-47’s and iron ladders to scale the sides of the ship.

Phillips has little time to prepare for the oncoming attack. He places a call for immediate military support to no avail. Muse boards the ship and holds Phillips at gunpoint. A rather tense series of events onboard finds Muse and his crew taking off in one of the Maersk’s lifeboat with Phillips as their hostage. The US Navy is called in to negotiate this delicate situation.

Admirers of director Paul Greengrass, best known for his action-packed blockbusters “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” can rest assured that the ensuing events are perfectly wrought with suspense.

Attested by the recent award-season hype, one of “Captain Phillips’ greatest strengths lies in the performances by the film’s lead actors. Tom Hanks has obviously proved his ability time and time again, so it should come as no surprise that he is able to inhabit the film’s high-tension environment with ease. In my opinion, the film’s true gems are the amateur actors cast as the pirates.

Barkhad Abdi makes a particularly strong impression as the lead pirate, Muse. According to a recent interview, before Abdi was cast in the film, he was working as a chauffeur and had no aspirations to become an actor. You would not know it from his performance: he gives Muse both the ferocity of a hardened criminal and the vulnerability of a man who has been presented with few other opportunities in his unforgiving home country. First-time actors Barkhad Abdirahman, Mahat M. Ali and Mohamed Ali co-star in equally impressive debut roles.

I was originally concerned about how the film would portray Somalis. Regardless of the film’s foundation in true events, I hoped that the film would do justice to the complexity of the situation. “Captain Phillips” is not a film of heroes and villains. Although it would certainly be simple to create villains out of the pirates, screenwriter Billy Ray has expertly avoided this facile solution. Rather, Ray has drawn many astute parallels between Phillips and Muse. I have not read Phillips’ autobiographical account of his abduction, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, so I do not know the exact nature of Phillips’ and Muse’s relationship during their days together in the Maersk’s lifeboat. However, I can say that the script Ray has crafted is a refreshingly sympathetic spin on a dire situation.

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