The story of modern-day piracy made headlines in early April 2009: how just four Somali pirates armed with machine guns boarded the Maersk Alabama, and held it to ransom off the coast of Africa. The container ship, manned by Captain Richard Phillips and 20 crew members, had on board hundreds of tonnes of cargo but not a single weapon.
Director Paul Greengrass’ powerful film Captain Phillips is based on the eventual book about the event, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.
The film opens with a shorthand but effective look into the lives of the adversaries who will meet aboard the Maersk Alabama — on one hand is veteran Captain Phillips, a caring family man at home who runs a tight ship at work; on the other, are the impoverished, disempowered Somalis who have little to lose when handed machine guns, motorboats and a plan to board a western ship.
Greengrass keeps the action going; we move very swiftly to the Captain boarding the ship, carrying out a security drill and the Somalis attacking. The director’s handheld camera technique — used to such good effect in the two Bourne films — gives immediacy and plausibility to the situation.
As do his intelligent casting choices — actors who say everything that needs to be said, just by showing up on screen, whether it’s Max Martini as the SEAL Commander or Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips. While not a particular Hanks fan, he does exude dependability, decency and the heroism inherent in everyman, seemingly just by playing himself.
And then there’s Barkhad Abdi, a Somali-born immigrant to America who plays Muse, the unofficial leader among the four Somalis. The actor in his debut role scorches the screen with his ravaged frame and razor sharp cheekbones; the force of his personality forces you to acknowledge both his desperate hunger and an odd sense of compassion.
Greengrass finds clever solutions to the essential problem of telling a story whose outcomes are known — he gives you detail, but more importantly, another perspective. The crew members are seen eating full breakfasts on board the ship whose cargo included food aid for African countries. By contrast, all that the four Somalis are ever seen consuming is khat, the plant said to generate excitement and depress appetite.
Provocative visual imbalances are set up, such as the might of the American Navy looming up high against the miniscule lifeboat carrying the Somalis and their hostage.
The film does not condone the act of piracy, but it does make you think about the choices open to the Somalis in a land where basic survival is the aspirational goal. We are asked to reconsider the roles of attacker and victim in today’s globalised world.
Recent news stories have questioned the portrayal of the filmic Captain Phillips; his real-life crew members have alleged that his heroism is a lie. While this may disappoint many, it should not detract from the excellence of Greengrass’ film, which is contemporary thriller, political statement and documentary all rolled into a satisfying and gripping whole.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Max Martini
Storyline: Gripping dramatisation of the true-life story of how four Somalis pirates boarded an American cargo ship in April 2009.
Bottomline: Everything that recent instalments of Pirates of the Caribbean are not. And then some.