October 14, 2013 -- This tense drama about piracy on the high seas is based on a true story about a cargo ship overrun by Somali pirates in 2009 in the Indian Ocean. The pirates kidnapped the ship's captain and held him for ransom.
The film is based on the book, “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea (2010).” It was written by Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks in the film) with Stephan Talty. The film opens at Phillips' home in Vermont, where he is preparing for his next voyage, as captain of the Maersk Alabama.
Soon after the ship is underway, Phillips becomes concerned about pirate activity near Somalia in the Indian Ocean, where the ship is bound. No sooner had he ordered drills on repelling boarders than small boats were spotted on radar, closing fast. The scene also switches to Somalia where a pirate, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (played by Somali-born actor Barkhad Abdi) is awakened from his bed on the news that pirate crews are being formed by a local warlord. He rises and goes to where the boats are being readied for launch.
The pirate operation is fairly sophisticated. Small, fast boats get their fuel, food and other supplies from a mother ship. Radar is used to target stragglers, strays and other ships sailing alone, rather than in convoys. Like the whaling ships of old, these tiny boats attack giant cargo ships using ladders to scale the sides of ships and automatic weapons to fight the crew.
The cargo ships fight back with their speed and size, using water canons and small arms to repel the pirates. Muse leads his men on the attack from his tiny boat and Captain Phillips tries to swamp the tiny boat with his ship's wake, water cannons and by colliding with the pirate boat.
The pirates board the ship and another cat-and-mouse game ensues with the crew hiding in the vast ship and disabling it so the pirates can't gain control of the ship. Eventually, the pirates leave the ship with Captain Phillips as their hostage. Later, the pirates find themselves surrounded by U.S. Navy ships. The Navy is under orders not to allow Phillips to be taken to Somalia as a hostage. The situation becomes more intense as the pirates lose patience with the FBI negotiators. They consider killing their hostage.
Hanks, of course, has won a lot of acting awards. The real revelation in this film is the performance of Barkhad Abdi as the pirate. He had no experience as an actor before this film, but his performance is compelling as a determined and desperate pirate hoping to strike it rich. The interaction between Phillips and Muse is fascinating to watch.
I had read the accounts of this kidnapping when it happened. The way it is depicted in the film is not quite how I imagined it. The skill of the Navy Seals in this rescue operation, however, is every bit what I imagined it was, based on the news reports. The military personnel in the film are portrayed as no-nonsense professionals, almost like the soldiers and sailors one finds in a Tom Clancy novel. The film does a great job of building suspense througout. Hanks does his usual fine job as the heroic “everyman,” the Good American, crowned with humility and decency.
In reading the background for this story, however, I found out that other members of the real crew of the Maersk Alabama say the portrayal of Phillips in this movie is wrong. They say Phillips ignored warnings about piracy and took unnecessary risks. They say he was arrogant and made poor choices. You can read these reports yourself and draw your own conclusions. This review is about the movie, the plot and its characters. It is not about my estimation of how events actually unfolded, or speculation about the character of the real people involved.
This film is well acted and well photographed. It generates a lot of drama and suspense. It is the sort of solid, well-crafted film one expects from Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum” and “United 93”). This film rates a B+.
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