Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Catherine Keener
Based on the scary true events from 2009, Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne" sequels, United 93) brings another sharp and pulsating story to the big screen that is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat. Captain Richard Phillips and his wife (Keener) kiss each other goodbye as he heads off for his next job. He is leading the cargo ship Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean around the Horn of Africa. At the same time a group of young men in Somalia form a crew to set out and hijack the cargo ships in the area for money. They come from a very small and poor area where money and food are scarce. This is not a first time job for some of them as they have a boss and leader they are working for.
Captain Phillips is given warnings on the impending danger of piracy in area. He seems to have a sixth sense that something is going to happen has he takes them quite seriously. He makes his crew perform piracy drills and reminds them of the very real threat they may be in. Some of the turn defensive and threaten that their Union status doesn’t cover piracy threats. Leave it to a good Tom Hanks moment to remind them all that this is indeed the job they signed up for and that they knew exactly what they might be facing in this part of the world. It is not long before the skiffs appear in sight. Muse (Abdi), who is the leader of the group, and three others in one small boat manage to hijack the Maersk Alabama and take Captain Phillips hostage aboard a lifeboat.
It may come as a surprise that the main four actors portraying the Somali pirates are all making their feature film debut. Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali are all from Minneapolis who responded to a massive casting call. So much of the film relies on the back and forth relationship between Hanks and Abdi. He is quite stunning and is fully capable of going head-to-head with the two-time Oscar winner. His line “I’m the captain now” is delivered so firm and matter of fact that it is eerie without coming across as diabolical or campy. Each of them is so convincing that it challenges you to feel a bit sympathetic at times, especially for Abdirahman’s character for being in this situation at such a young age. Hanks gives one of his best performances in years. He has had a string of misses lately that have not really given him a chance to shine and show off how great of an actor he can be. Even hidden behind all the make-up, he was still very Tom Hanks-ish in Cloud Atlas. Don't believe me? The last fifteen minutes will change your mind.
Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Flightplan) keep this film focused and on point yet give it dimension despite the short time period in the events. The story is all about the hijacking. There are no sub-plots or back stories to bog down its core. There are two quick scenes at the beginning to set up these characters and the two vastly different worlds they come from. After that, the course of events is set into nail-biting action as you continually try to figure out how they successfully rescue Captain Phillips. I would hate to think of that as a spoiler, especially if you remember this news story. The suspenseful, claustrophobic feeling should also be attributed to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd whose close-up shots with the shaky camera give you that tight atmosphere of being trapped in a lifeboat.
It's only the middle of October and this is the third intense drama, Gravity and Prisoners being the other two, that ask quite a bit from its audience. By the end, you just feel a bit exhausted. I have a feeling the rest of the year will be just as potent. I cannot fathom being in any of these situations that these films present. What does it say about the Somali men that have the gall and determination to think that with some guns and a basic ladder they can board a cargo ship? How poor of a life do you lead when that seems to be your only viable option for money. Films like these provide such interesting character study as they stay with you for days later.
RATING: **** (4 out of 5 stars)