Paul Greengrass is a director who in his 2006 movie UNITED 93 made my heart pound and my arms tingle to the point that I imagined I was having a heart attack or stroke, and began agitatedly searching my pocketbook in the dark of the theater for a quick aspirin– even though I knew the plot outcome. Coming from a documentary background this British director, screenwriter and former journalist did not disappoint with his newest thriller, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS based on the 2009 true story of the hi-jacking of the US container ship, Maersk Alabama by a group of Somali pirates – the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years. What makes this movie more than just your routine anxiety-provoking suspense drama is the beauty of Barry Ackroyd’s camera work, slowly alternating between clear, chromatic aerial shots of the sea, the sky, the ships to chaotic, frenzied close ups of confusing claustrophobic moments - placing us, the audience in the center of the action and at times making me literally seasick.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is also a David and Goliath tale – the desperation of the Somali fisherman-turned pirates in small skiffs attacking a huge cargo ship; they who have nothing to lose as their meager livelihoods have been usurped by wealthy global conglomerates gobbling up their natural resources. They are beholden in these kidnapping ventures to their ruthless Somali “warlords”, and risk their lives preying on vulnerable targets in international waters in order to sustain themselves economically, to the point of taking on the full force of the US Navy and Merchant Marine. The contrast in physiognomy between a robust Tom Hanks as the Captain and the bone-thin, almost skeletal appearance of the pirates makes the distinction between “haves” and "have-nots” frighteningly apparent.
The movie opens up in a small town in Vermont supposedly giving us some insight into Captain Richard Phillips’ (a stoic and vulnerable performance by Tom Hanks) life and family. But this short introduction is a weak, commonplace beginning to a film, which thank goodness, grew more “uncommon” as I continued watching. The Somali actors were excellent, particularly Barkhad Abdi as Muse the fiercely determined, burning cavernous-eyed leader of the group, and a nuanced, sensitive performance by Mahat Ml Ali as a 16 year old young man whose innocence had not yet been patinaed by the harsh reality of hostage-taking.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS left me feeling conflicted - relieved that Captain Phillips was rescued, and dispirited by the nature of the wide gulf that separates humankind. This chasm was accentuated cinematically, and metaphorically by the vast expanse of the open seas as opposed to the brutal confining architectural space of Phillips captivity. By the end of the film, I did not know whether to weep from joy or cry out in anguish for the abjection of lives lived in hopelessness.