By Joan Ellis
One of the trickiest challenges in making movies lies in the phrase “based on a true story.”
In Captain Phillips, Director Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks have managed to overcome all the inherent hurdles. Their subject – the hijacking of a cargo ship under the American flag off the coast of Somalia in 2009 – drew news headlines but not for long enough that Captain Phillips, his crew or the pirates became familiar to the public. The filmmakers were spared the hazard of trying to recreate high-profile people with actors.
With that great freedom in casting, they chose Tom Hanks to play Richard Phillips, a guarantee that the movie would be watched with respect. Hanks’ reputation for talent, experience and humanity is deep, and in this tough movie, we believe him from frame one. The casting team can take additional credit for a creating a credible American crew and for the still greater challenge of casting the Somali pirates who came from a culture and an economy unfamiliar to Americans. In reaching to the Somali community in Minneapolis, the filmmakers found actor Barkhad Abdi to play Muse, leader of the pirates, and Barkhad Abdirahman as his sidekick Bilal. Both men are outstanding.
At the outset the odds seem ridiculous. The enormous cargo ship Maersk Alabama, out of Norfolk and bound for Kenya with a crew of just 20, is unarmed in compliance with shipping company policy. The pirate skiff, a seeming sliver of wood beside the ship, sneaks under the hoses the American crew has turned on it. A small handful of skinny young men carrying AK-47s climb the ship’s side and take control of the bridge.
These young pirates – inexperienced in piracy and weaponry – had been recruited in a chaotic beach scene by bosses determined to extract money from shipping companies. Overwhelmed and thoroughly confused by their own mission, they were raucous, disorganized and extremely jittery.
The rest of the movie involves the removal of Capt. Phillips to a capsule life craft where he was held hostage with no water and little air by an armed group of frightened, angry young men. After the arrival of the USS Bainbridge and snipers from Navy SEAL Team Six, the only hope of rescue lay with the SEALs who knew they had to shoot three pirates simultaneously in order to save Phillips. The tense sequence of their finding straight sight lines to hidden targets in a tiny craft bobbing in the waves is one of the best in the movie.
An intriguing detail: Reaching for reality, director Greengrass housed the actors who were the Somali pirates and the American crew in different hotels until he filmed the violent boarding of the ship. The collective audience exhaustion at the end of the movie is tribute to the people who made and edited it. They have done full justice to a true story that is – even for a comfortable audience – an ordeal of unbroken suspense.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.