From its very opening scenes, Captain Phillips is a high stakes adrenaline rush that doesn’t let up for two hours. Based on the biographical account, “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea”, the film opts for gritty, though at times hard to watch, realism rather than the Hollywood sensationalism often accompanying this genre. Captain Phillips always keeps at the forefront the fact that Richard Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama really did endure the events flashing over the screen.
Director Paul Greengrass sets the movie up with a journalistic tone by showing both groups involved in the conflict in their native element; Captain Phillips at his home in Vermont and the Somali pirates in their seaside village. The film doesn’t linger though, and soon we are on the bridge of the Alabama, while at the same time we see the pirates planning their next big attack. Tension mounts when the two sides collide. Like Soviet US war games, each side tries desperately to outsmart the other. But, the film reminds us that this in fact is no game as bullets fly and lives of both the ship’s crew and Somali pirates are on the line. As the camera follows close behind Captain Phillips, it is hard not to think of yourself aboard the Alabama, trying to keep one step ahead of the armed assailants.
Halfway through the film, the struggle to retake the Alabama shifts to Captain Phillip’s personal struggle for survival as he is taken hostage aboard the Alabama’s lifeboat. With less to gain and more to lose, the pirates become increasingly desperate - issuing threats and physical violence on Captain Phillips. Even with the US military circling around the claustrophobic lifeboat, we see that the men inside are engaged in their own solitary struggle. The pirates have been abandoned by their people, and Captain Phillips has no real way of being reunited with his.
It is in the second half that a few hiccups in the movie become apparent. Even though the real Captain Phillips did spend five days aboard the Alabama’s lifeboat, the audience feels the weight of this time to the film’s detriment. The movie also engages in some jingoistic pride as the SEAL team prepares to kick some Somali pirate ass, but ultimately it serves more to rev up the audience than as an all-out celebration of American might.
In the end, the film depicts Captain Phillips as an ordinary man - never elevated to hero-status - who simply is trying to deal with the extraordinary situation he finds himself in. In the same way, we are given a fair portrayal of the pirates. They are not blood-thirsty villains, nor are they the poster-child for some political agenda. Rather, the film takes the high road by allowing you to understand the pirates’ motivations without ever justifying them.
Ultimately, there is triumph in the final denouement. Even though Captain Phillips is broken by the horrific ordeal he has survived, he has made it out alive to tell the world what he endured. All in all, the film proves that sometimes fiction can’t even hold a candle to the facts of the Alabama’s hijacking and Captain Richard Phillips’ rescue.
The film will be released commercially Oct. 11, and is sure to please mariners and land-lovers alike. We might just see Captain Phillips setting a clear course for the Oscars.