On April 9, 2009, the Maersk Alabama, an American container ship headed for Mombasa, Kenya, was hijacked on the high seas in an area that had become very popular with Somali pirates who preyed on international commercial cargo ships. Despite the ship crew’s training in evasive maneuvers in the event of just such an attack, the vessel’s 20-man crew’s flare gun and fire hoses proved no match for the heavily armed quartet of pirates who were high on an herbal stimulant called chat.
After climbing aboard, the pirates abandoned the idea of commandeering the cumbersome 500+ foot-long craft that was carrying 17,000 metric tons of cargo, since what they were really after was a multimillion-dollar ransom. Instead, they took Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) hostage on one of the Maersk’s own lifeboats in order to use him as a bargaining chip.
However, a standoff ensued in the middle of the ocean. Soon, the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer stationed near the Gulf of Aden, was dispatched to the scene and its Captain Frank Castellano (Yul Vasquez) feigned negotiating with the thieves while simultaneously securing permission from President Obama to carry out a daring rescue plan.
Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93), Captain Phillips is certain to be compared to the somewhat similar film Zero Dark Thirty because they both recount a real-life mission mounted by a crack team of Navy SEALs. The difference, however, is that this picture essentially shows the depth of Captain Phillip’s anxiety over his fate, while Zero Dark Thirty devoted most of its attention to delineating the intricate details involved in the complicated manhunt for Osama bin Laden.
Curiously, this movie repeatedly makes the presumably politically correct point of reminding us that these madmen are not Muslim terrorists. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks does bring his A-game here when he’s cooped-up in close quarters with the support cast of terrorists (Barkhad Abdirahaman, Mahat M. Ali, Barkhad Abdi, and Faysal Ahmed) for most of the picture.
The film portrays the abductors as soulless, primitive natives right out of a typical Tarzan movie. True, the end of the picture is more effective when the bad guys are portrayed as the embodiment of pure evil with no redeeming qualities. Yet, this production would have benefited considerably from just a little development of the villains’ characters.
Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, sustained terror, bloody images, and drug abuse. In English and Somali with subtitles. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.