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With the true-life maritime thriller Captain Phillips Tom Hanks has his best movie since Catch Me If You Can 11 years ago. Here are the reasons it works so well — and the reason its leftist politics cause it to fall into a trap while reaching for social significance.
1. Paul Greengrass.
The director of the second and third Bourne movies and United 93 is perhaps the reigning master of tense, absorbing, completely credible you-are-there cinema.
Captain Phillips is very much in that vein of breathless suspense. Vermonter Captain Richard Phillips was piloting the Merchant Marine vessel the Maersk Alabama off the Gulf of Aden when Somali pirates using simple skiffs were lurking in the waters looking for a lone ship they could pick off and hold for millions in ransom. Phillips himself endured a five-day ordeal, harrowingly depicted with Greengrass’s trademark quasi-documentary style.
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2. The level of detail.
As usual, Greengrass makes his situations vivid and believable by slathering on the details.
In this film, you’ll only be a few minutes in when you realize what a fascinating, massive and complex operation is the international shipping system that probably brought you everything from your socks to your bananas. And yet it only takes about a dozen men to run a gigantic ship full of hundreds of tons of cargo. Greengrass takes us inside the technology on the bridge as Phillips notices the approaching boats on radar but can do little on his unarmed ship except bluff (he sends a message that causes one group of attackers to turn back) and turn on the fire hoses that are positioned around the ship with intent to swamp the skiffs.
3. The fierceness of the pirates.
As he did in United 93, in which many participants in the 9/11 drama played themselves, Greengrass makes the most of non-professional actors.
This time he uses Somalis such as a Minneapolis immigrant named Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, the leader of the pirate gang. Abdi’s wedge-shaped face and hollow, desperate eyes are mesmerizing. These men are small and slight but you can feel the willingness to do anything as they launch their boats with grim determination, bent on making a fortune with nothing but a few assault rifles and a ladder with a grappling hook to throw over the side of the Alabama.
What they lack, though, despite their able seamanship, is much knowledge of the prey they’re attacking: As Captain Phillips presciently tells his crew, “Remember, you know this ship and they don’t.” That asymmetry of information turns out to be critical.
4. The resourcefulness of the main character.
You may think you know the basics of the story of Richard Phillips’ ordeal in April of 2009, which involved an expert military response by the Navy SEALS, but unless you read his memoir A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea you probably will be amazed by the various twists Phillips came up with to mislead and confuse the pirates and stay alive. Phillips comes across as almost a saint in the movie, though — he seems genuinely to care about helping one of the pirates with his injured foot — so it’s a relief to hear the real Phillips say, in interviews, that “it never entered my mind” to empathize with his captors.
“There was no Stockholm Syndrome,” he told the Associated Press.
That’s why it’s so puzzling (and unfortunate) that Greengrass marred his film with a superfluous scene of left-wing, anti-Western, anti-capitalist talking points…
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1. When Phillips tries to suss out the motives behind the pirate attack, his captors tell him that it’s people like Phillips who forced them into armed robbery and extortion on the high seas.
One pirate explains that big commercial fishing operations have drained the seas near Somalia of all the fish, which frames the story as a kind of watery Occupy Wall Street. Should we be rooting for the pirates then? No. As Phillips explains, the ship is carrying, in addition to its commercial cargo, tons of aid for Africa.
The movie is just about perfect without this bit of Third World grandstanding, which appears to have been thrown in so that Captain Phillips can be positioned as not just a rousing yarn but as an Oscar-bait story of globalization’s unintended victims.
Thanks, but we’ll just go ahead and subscribe to The Nation if we want to be told how the international trade that has done so much to lift up the world’s standard of living in the last 50 years is somehow a bad thing.