Captain Phillips arrives at almost the perfect time in popular culture, a period when artists and their benefactors work strenuously to contextualize and then fictionalize major events at a breakneck pace. It may have only been four years ago that a container ship was overtaken by Somali pirates and the ship’s captain taken hostage for 72 harrowing hours. But simply reading Richard Phillips’ telling of the story isn’t enough: we want to witness every sweaty moment of it.
To the credit of the film’s producers, they handed the job of bringing this to film over to the right people. Paul Greengrass has already proven himself capable of turning real life events into engrossing cinema with his previous directorial efforts Bloody Sunday and United 93. And Billy Ray, while not the most artful of screenwriters, is best at no nonsense dialogue, especially when it comes to true stories (Shattered Glass, Breach). Their efforts combine perfectly for this film: although you know where this story is going and where it ends, it is fantastically gripping entertainment.
With those building blocks in place, the film really falls on the shoulders of the actors to bring out the nuance and emotion. Tom Hanks may not be the most obvious choice, but he should be commended for what he does here, absolutely believable as a man treading a delicate line with four young men shoving AK-47s in his face. His captain makes all the right moves in attempting to protect his crew, even willingly offering himself up as a sacrifice, but Hanks’s real skills as an actor don’t come into play until the end of the film as he shudders through the aftermath of what he’s gone through. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi does commendable work as the sleepy-voiced leader of the pirate gang. He never pushes too hard with this role, maintaining a scintillating air of mystery and danger that is almost alluring until he threatens to bash Phillips’ head in.
Where things get tricky is in the rather one-sided view of the geopolitics involved in this incident and its portrayal. Greengrass and Ray give us a bit of exposition showing the pirates being forced to take to the seas by local warlords, but other than one throwaway line towards the end of the film, there’s no real sense of motivation here. You get none of the real factors that lead young men like these into a life of piracy and servitude: extreme poverty where 53% of the rural population lives on less than $1 per day.
It gets even knottier when considering the racial issues potentially at play here. Captain Phillips may be as true to the real incident as possible, but when it is fictionalized, captured on digital film, and projected on a screen, it ends up placed in a long, unfortunate history of cinematic visions that serve to keep us viewing people of color as dangerous others. Greengrass doesn’t help this cause any by showing the other three pirates involved as bug-eyed, overly aggressive, and drug-crazed (the over-emphasis on the Somalis’ use of khat is particularly egregious). Such a portrayal might be to the letter factual, but not adding even the slightest of dimensions to these characters seems only to help their blood-soaked fate a little easier for America to swallow.