In March 2009, the world watched as Somali pirates hijacked the container ship Maersk Alabama off the Horn of Africa, and then kidnapped Captain Richard Phillips in a powered lifeboat when they lost control of the ship.  Captain Phillips tells the story of the ship, the pirates, and Phillips’ frightening ordeal over several days in the Gulf of Aden — and it may be the best movie of the year.

The film starts with Phillips (Tom Hanks) preparing for his long flight to Oman to take command of the Maersk Alabama, spending as little time as absolutely necessary to establish that Phillips has a family and a tough approach to his job. (If you blink, you’ll miss the fact that Catherine Keener has a brief cameo as Phillips’ wife.)  His crew get only a little more introduction to the audience before the action switches to Somalia, where Abdulwadi Muse helps collect a large crew of pirates after being threatened by the local crime bosses to get to work. The pirates soon put themselves on a collision course with the Maersk Alabama, and the rest really is history.

Director Paul Greenglass brought the story of United 93 to audiences in heartbreaking and realistic detail, and Greenglass picks up where he left off with Captain Phillips — a story with a more satisfying ending, of course.  While Greenglass deploys Shaky Cam and Nostril Shot way too often in the exposition sequences, he puts both to great effect during the real action and tension sequences. The action even includes Phillips’ ill-fated escape attempt, just before his eventual rescue.  The film makes almost no reference to politics, only mentioning a couple of times that the White House’s highest priority was to keep the pirates from returning to Somalia with a hostage, which wasn’t exactly a secret, or controversial either. Scenes involving the US Navy ships and the SEALs are highly realistic and impressive.   If Act of Valor gave the most realistic cinematic depiction of special forces operations, this film has to be a close second, albeit without any real exposure of detailed tactics.

Hanks gives a superb performance as Richard Phillips, especially in the second half of the film as a hostage.  In fact, the performance gets better and better as the film goes along, with Hanks’ last scenes perhaps his best in years.  However, Barkhad Abdi as Abdulwadi Muse almost steals the movie.  Abdi and his fellow actors playing the Somali pirates were cast in a open call here in the Twin Cities, and they all do a good job, but Muse gives the most nuanced of all the performances.

Captain Phillips provides a harrowing and gripping ride, all the more so for its basis in real life. On the Hot Air scale, I definitely give it a five:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

In fact, I might go see it again.  However, the MPAA PG-13 rating may be a little misleading.  It gets bloody, and the tension and violence are pretty high for young teens.  I’m surprised this didn’t get an R rating, so parents should be warned.

Update: Another thought, which I posted on Twitter:

It’s almost Jack Webb-esque in its fair and honest treatment of the military.

Update, 8:38 pm ET: I write my movie reviews on Friday or Saturday for Sunday publication (and I do the same with the NFL threads), and today I spent all day at church and then with my granddaughters at a local pumpkin patch, including dinner. This is the first I’ve had a chance to read this from the New York Post:

“Phillips wasn’t the big leader like he is in the movie,” says one crew member, who, for legal reasons, spoke with The Post anonymously. He worked very closely with Phillips on the Maersk Alabama and was alarmed by his behavior from the beginning. Phillips, he says, had a bad reputation for at least 12 years prior, known as a sullen and self-righteous captain.

“No one wants to sail with him,” he says.

After the hijacking, 11 crew members have sued Maersk Line and the Waterman Steamship Corp. for almost $50 million, alleging “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety.” Phillips is a witness for the defense.

“The crew had begged Captain Phillips not to go so close to the Somali coast,” said Deborah Waters, the attorney who brought the claim. “He told them he wouldn’t let pirates scare him or force him to sail away from the coast.”

I don’t want to excerpt too much, not just for fair-use limitations but also because readers should go to the Post to read it entirely.  It’s good to remember that “Based on a true story” in Hollywoodese usually means “most of this we made up,” but in this case it could be on Phillips, as Greenglass and screenwriter Billy Ray used Phillips’ book as their source material.

Anyway, thanks to the several readers (John Ziegler among them) who sent me links to this story. I just only now got home and saw them, and the Post’s story went up several hours after I’d already written the review.