Talk about David and Goliath. One of the many clever things about Paul Greengrass's movie "Captain Phillips" (October 11), which was adapted by Billy Ray from Phillips' memoir of the 2009 hijacking, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea," is that it plays with scale.
In port, the cargo ship Maersk looks huge, although it is dwarfed by towers of bright-colored containers as many are hoisted aboard by giant cranes. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) seems small and anxious as he checks over the enormous ship, worried about security. That's because the designated route is past the horn of Africa and Somalia, where pirate warnings are posted.
When the pirates do arrive a tiny skiff filled with four tall, skinny men, they seem impossibly small against the powerful vessel hosing them with gallons of water. But these Somalis have something Captain Phillips and his men do not: desperation and guns. (In 2009, shipping companies didn't supply security guards, relying on insurance to cover their losses; many now helicopter in protection for their ships.)
It's a tense battle as Phillips and his men try to outwit the pirates, whose implacable leader is wily Muse (well-acted by non-pro Barkhad Abdi, who was recruited with three of his pals by casting director Francine Maisler in Minneapolis). Against seemingly impossible odds, we see the tiny figures climb a ladder up the side of the gigantic ship. Once on board with their guns, the pirates are in charge. "Look at me," Muse orders Phillips. "I'm the Captain now."
Greengrass insisted on shooting 75% of this arduous film--which took two and a half months--on the ocean with real ships supplied by the Maersk Line and the U.S. Navy.
The rest of the movie is an intense thrill ride, as former documentarian Greengrass, using skills he picked up on "United 93," and his regular editor Christopher Rouse (since "The Bourne Supremacy") place the audience in a vise which they tighten until the very end. "The Social Network" producing team --Scott Rudin, Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti (whose military contacts were a huge help getting this made) --had to dicker with the MPAA ratings board and shave one intense lifeboat scene to earn their PG-13.
Given that Phillips turned up at the L.A. premiere on Skype and wrote the memoir on which this adventure is based, it is not news that he survived. But Hanks' extraordinary acting in the last few scenes, from when he's bound and trapped at gunpoint in a bobbing claustrophobic lifeboat to the finale, will earn the two-time Oscar-winner his sixth nomination.
Multiple other nominations are also certain (Rouse and "The Hurt Locker" and "United 93" cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's 35 mm hand-held photography among others) for this well-made and resonant tale about the world's haves and have-nots. "Captain Phillips" reminds that even wealthy and mighty America, with its destroyers, helicopters, drones, SEALs and ammunition, can be all-too vulnerable to a few hungry fishermen.
"Captain Phillips" one-sheet and trailer are below.