Over the past two decades, nearly 100 hijackings have taken place in the commercial waters off Somalia. Pirates have raked in over a billion dollars in ransom money and scores of crew members of cargo vessels have died. Most of these pirates are poor fishermen who can no longer do the work their families did through the generations thanks to overfishing by outsiders. They have been armed and recruited by war lords who send them out to sea to hunt for new targets. According to a 2012 Report from the nonprofit Oceans Beyond Piracy, hijackings are responsible for the loss of $18 billion annually from the global economy, largely due to a reduction in shipping activities.
Captain Phillips is based on the true story of an American sea captain (Tom Hanks) and his crew who are taken hostage by four armed Somali pirates, whose leader is named Muse (Barkhad Abdi). The biopicture is directed by Paul Greengrass who has done riveting films exploring the rifts and tensions of our era: Bloody Sunday about a British massacre in Northern Ireland; United 93 about the hijacking of a plane on 9/11, and Green Zone about the Iraq War. In the press notes, he explains the reasons he made this film:
"We've had a lot of very good films in the last decade that have looked at issues of national security and terrorism, but I wanted this film to look at the broader conflict in our world — the conflict between the haves and the have-nots. The conflict between Phillips, who is part of the stream of the global economy, and the pirates, who are not, felt fresh and new and forward-looking to me. The stand-off between Phillips and Muse is a thrilling high seas siege, but one that speaks to the larger forces shaping the world today. I've always felt that a story should be told in a way that is compelling and thrilling, but also thought-provoking."
In March of 2009, Captain Richard Phillips prepares to leave his home in Vermont for Oman in Africa where he is to take command of the MV Maersk Alabama, which is loaded with 2400 tons of commercial cargo, 200 tons of food aid and more. The ride to the airport with his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) is tense given the dangers of the region of the world where is headed. Phillips also worries about his son's future in a time when jobs are in short supply.
In Eyl, Somalia, Muse, a former fisherman now turned pirate, makes his way to the beach where he is dispatched by his bosses to choose three men to accompany him on a mission to find and hijack a cargo vessel. Meanwhile, Phillips and his crew are heading towards the Somali basin. Worried about a possible attack, he orders a security drill on the water. When Muse and his men approach the Alabama in their skiff, the seasoned American out-maneuvers them in their first confrontation. But the next day, even though the ship's hoses are pouring water on them, the pirates board the ship. Phillips has told the crew to hide in the engine room to avoid being taken as hostages. Muse enters the bridge and tells him: "Relax, no Al Qaeda here. Just business."
Based on Richard Phillips and Stephen Talty's memoir A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea, the rest of this suspenseful movie revolves around the battle of wills between the middle-aged Captain and the young machine-gun toting Muse. Tom Hanks comes across as a resourceful, smart, and cagey hero as he puts one roadblock after another in Muse's way. The pirate not only has to deal with his enemy's schemes to foil him but also the rebellion of one of his own men, Najee (Faysal Ahmed), who undermines Muse's decisions every step of the way.
As director of this riveting drama, Greengrass deserves to be given credit for maintaining tension throughout this drama about the four-day siege. He also draws out a strong performance from Tom Hanks as a man who possesses the right stuff for survival. However Greengrass's intention of delivering a sobering message about the war between the haves and the have-nots pales in comparison to A Hijacking, a poignant Danish film directed by Tobias Lindholm where the deadly consequences of the severe income inequalities around the world comes across loud and clear. Here a Danish cargo ship is seized by Somali pirates and the shipping company is ordered to pay $15 million or members of the crew will be executed. The filmmaker shows us power plays utilized by the corporate executives in their negotiations with the poor pirates. We also gain a clearer insight into the efforts of have-nots to level the playing field which is always stacked in favor of the very rich.
So, in sum, see Captain Phillips for its solid portrait of a middle-aged man who possesses the right stuff for surviving a hellish four-day ordeal. But don't expect this drama to shed much light on one of the major soul-shaking problems of time; the escalating war between the haves and the have-nots.
Special features on the Blu-Ray/DVD include a commentary with director Paul Greengrass; "Capturing Captain Phillips" — in-depth behind-the-scenes featurettes on making the acclaimed film.
Screened at The 51st New York Film Festival, Lincoln Center.