Captain Phillips: The Movie of the Moment

Director Paul Greengrass's piracy tale is riveting, even if (unlike me) you can ignore the current parallels.
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Columbia Pictures

A tiny cohort of poorly organized insurgents, in a feat of terrible miscalculation, hijack an enterprise vastly larger than themselves, demanding a large and implausible ransom. Outnumbered and surrounded, they soon begin bickering with one another, their plans changing by the hour. Although repeatedly offered an out if they will simply release their hostage, they find themselves too deeply wedded to the self-destructive course they’ve charted. “I came too far,” their leader explains. “I can’t give up.”

Is Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips the most inadvertently resonant movie of the year? The film is, of course, based on the real-life hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009, not on the real-life hijacking of the federal government by a few dozen GOP House members last week. But as inexact—and to some, no doubt, unreasonable—as the comparison may be, I can’t be the only one who noticed the thematic similarities. The pirates are even led by a relatively sensible, conciliatory fellow (wonderfully played by first-time actor and Somali refugee Barkhad Abdi), who is cowed by his ever-more-intemperate compatriots …

But on to the film itself. It begins unpromisingly, with the titular Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) packing for his upcoming voyage and introducing us to his genuinely painful Boston accent. (Don’t worry: It recedes noticeably over time.) Phillips banters with his wife (a thoroughly wasted Catherine Keener) about their grown children, about the changing world (“Everything’s different, big wheels a’ turning”), and other comparably tedious bits of backstory/foreshadowing.

As soon as Phillips is aboard his immense cargo ship in Oman, however, preparing to embark around the horn of Africa to Mombasa, Greengrass’s film settles into a comfortable groove, spare and realistic. Preparations are completed (x metric tons of fresh water, y metric tons of fuel), anchors are weighed (“bow thrusters!” “dead slow ahead!”), and the vessel—and with it the film—gets underway.

Greengrass takes various liberties with the ensuing plot, with perhaps the greatest being his failure to note that Phillips took his craft within 240 miles of the Somali coast, despite a U.S. advisory to remain at least 600 miles offshore. In any case, pirates are encountered—their tiny craft dwarfed by their gargantuan prey—repelled with hoses, and then encountered again. This time a band of four Somalis manages to board the ship, armed with AK-47s and palpable desperation, and the Alabama crew—most of whom have taken refuge in the engine room—begin resisting the takeover of their ship by any means available.

What unfolds is an escalating game of cat and mouse, in which each side is defined more clearly by its weaknesses than its strengths. The crew of the Alabama have the numbers, but not the weapons. The pirates have the weapons, but no sense of the ship and—once it becomes clear to them that the crew does not intend to cooperate cheerfully with their $10 million ransom demand—no real idea of what to do next. Initially, their advantage seems to reside in their willingness to kill. But by the time two U.S. Navy warships arrive on the scene, it has become clear that their true advantage lies in their willingness to die. The final act of the film takes place (as followers of the news will recall), with the pirates and their last hostage, Phillips, crowded into a tiny, airless, covered lifeboat, surrounded by the overwhelming force of the U.S. military. The movie’s initial irony—of a ship the height of an office building and the length of one-and-a-half football fields being taken captive by a skiff with an outboard motor—has come full circle, and the world order reasserted itself.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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