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'Captain Phillips': High Stakes On The High Seas

Oct 10, 2013
Originally published on October 11, 2013 6:38 pm

Before seeing Paul Greengrass' nerve-wracking, based-on-fact thriller Captain Phillips, I'd never been able to get my head around the logistics of Somali piracy. Enormous commercial freighters, captured and held for ransom by tiny bands of pirates — often teenagers — who always seem to overtake the freighters on the high seas in fishing skiffs smaller than the freighters' lifeboats.

I mean, you wonder: How on earth could four or five teenagers capture a freighter, subduing a far larger crew and extracting millions of dollars in ransom?

Wonder no more.

Greengrass — director of two Bourne movies and the based-on-real-life Sept. 11 nightmare United 93 — bows to no one when it comes to bringing screen clarity to complex action. Give the man a Point A, a Point B, and half a dozen perfectly good reasons the two can't be visually or logically connected, and he'll still manage to give you the cinematic equivalent of a straight line. He has a capacity for making murky plans transparent, subterfuges clear, and in Captain Phillips he brushes in the built-in defenses of the freighter Maersk Alabama before it's quite occurred to you to grapple with how a hijacker might get past them.

Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks sporting a distracting New England accent, but otherwise persuasive) has no sooner boarded the ship than he's found grates unlocked between decks and ordered extra security checks. By the time the ship is rounding the Horn of Africa, a day or so out of port in April 2009, he's presiding over a full-on security drill.

The timing proves fortuitous. The men have barely been mustered when the drill becomes more than an exercise.

"I don't like the look of that," Phillips growls, peering at twin blips that shouldn't be on his ship's radar.

He likes it even less when he scrutinizes them through his binoculars and sees two tiny fishing skiffs speeding toward his ship, manned by Somalis with assault rifles who are looking at his freighter much as Ahab once looked at Moby-Dick.

Phillips radios for help, and when it's not forthcoming he gets creative, scaring off one skiff's crew with a clever exercise in what you might call sleight of voice. The other skiff's crew, though, is made of sterner stuff — and relentless, as led by the gaunt, scarily calm Muse, played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Though Phillips buys the crew time to hide below decks — the locks on those grates prove utterly useless — the lumbering freighter can't outrun the skiff, and soon it's been boarded by four determined young pirates.

Greengrass being an old hand at ratcheting up tension, this first half of the movie works more or less the way you'd expect. But then Phillips gets trapped with the pirates in a tiny enclosed lifeboat, separate from the ship, and the film shifts into less thoroughly charted dramatic waters, with the director making the pirates strikingly individual and the story turning into a saga of haves and have-nots. As two very different "captains" square off, and the desperation of the Somalis comes into sharper focus, the film becomes both more intimate and more politically intriguing.

This part of the film, and a denouement that finds Hanks getting startlingly raw and personal, are transformative, allowing the film to overcome an endgame that plays a bit like a Navy SEAL recruitment film. (Of course it actually happened, so you can't fault the filmmakers for that.)

And anyway, Hanks and Abdi are so compellingly matched that unlike with most thrillers, it won't be the action climax in Captain Phillips that'll stick with you. It'll be that aftermath, which gets at the emotional toll of terrorism in a way few movies have. (Recommended)

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Four years ago, Captain Richard Phillips and his freighter crew were attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The incident made headlines and inspired a memoir that, in turn, inspired a movie. The film is called "Captain Phillips" and Tom Hanks plays the title character. Our critic, Bob Mondello, says it's a gripping thriller.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: As the Maersk freighter Alabama rounds the Horn of Africa a day or so out of port in April 2009, Captain Richard Phillips isn't leaving much to chance. Recent hijackings by Somali pirates have him and his crew on edge, so they've been running security drills and as it happens, they're in the middle of one when he spots two blips on the ship's radar.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

TOM HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) I don't like the look of that.

MONDELLO: He likes it even less when he peers through binoculars.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) They're coming in fast.

MONDELLO: Fishing skiffs, men with assault rifles looking at the freighter the way Ahab looked at Moby Dick. Phillips radios for help.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) Potential piracy situation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Copy, Alabama. You should alert your crew and get your fire hedges ready.

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) Yeah, is that it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Chances are it's just fishermen.

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) They're not here to fish.

MONDELLO: Captain Phillips gets creative.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) (Unintelligible) that ladder.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) degrees.

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) (Unintelligible) degrees.

MONDELLO: And that buys the crew time, but the big lumbering freighter can't outrun the skiffs and soon they've been boarded.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) Lock down the bridge. Listen up. You know the drill. We stay hidden no matter what. I don't want any hostages.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go, go, go, go.

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) If the pirates find you, remember, you know the ship. They don't. They can feel like they're in charge, but keep them away from the important things like the generator and the engine controls.

MONDELLO: All sensible, all pointless. Moments later, four Somali pirates are on the bridge and Phillips only has his wits to work with.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) We got a problem. We pushed the ship too hard. We're off the grid. That means the computer's now offline.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible)

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) The ship's broken.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Captain, no one gets hurt if you don't play no game.

MONDELLO: The lead pirate, gaunt, young and scarily calm.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Look at me.

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Look at me.

HANKS: (As Richard Phillips) Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm the captain now.

MONDELLO: Director Paul Greengrass is the guy who made the second and third "Bourne" movies, not to mention the nightmarish 9/11 drama "United 93." So he's an old hand at ratcheting up tension and for this first half of "Captain Phillips," the movie works just the way you'd expect. Then, Phillips gets trapped with the pirates in a tiny enclosed lifeboat, separate from the ship, and the film shifts into less charted dramatic waters, becoming both more intimate, as two very different captains square off, and more politically intriguing as the desperation of the Somalis comes into sharper focus.

The end game, which actually happened, remember, can't help playing like a Navy SEAL recruitment film, but Greengrass makes the pirates strikingly individual. And Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi are so compellingly matched that unlike most thrillers, it won't be the action climax in "Captain Phillips" that'll stick with you. It's the aftermath, which gets at the emotional toll of terrorism in a way few movies have. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.