By Muhammad MuzammalColumnist
Based on the novel “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” “Captain Phillips” tells the astonishing true story of an infamous 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates. The captain of the ship, Richard Phillips, co-wrote the book about his life-changing experience. The film’s main conflict comes when the malicious Somali pirates force Phillips into a small, orange lifeboat, holding him ransom for $10 million. In line with director Paul Greengrass’s 2007 masterpiece “United 93,” “Captain Phillips” isolates its characters within a vast environment. Whereas “United 93” was about a hijacked flight, “Captain Philips” is about a ship takeover. The sky in “United 93” is the cool, wavy sea in “Captain Phillips.” There are various aerial shots of the small, orange boat placed on an endless body of water. Heated arguments arising in the boat are juxtaposed with the serene, undisturbed air outside. There is a key line in the film after Phillips questions why his kidnappers can’t find other avenues to earn money. The pirates’ leader replies, “Maybe in America.” He is referring to a Somali cultural problem: the pirates are the products of a hopeless and desolate society. Stealing and killing, that’s all they know. Thus what they do, they do to survive. Phillips is an educated man with a stable life. His way of thinking is more rational and complex than that of the pirates. He analyzes their motives. While the line “Maybe in America” might make people want to sympathize with the pirates, Phillips looks deeper. When the main leader says that the pirates stole $6 million in the previous year, Phillips wonders why they still hunt for more money. The pirates tell him to stay quiet. This epitomizes their greed. No matter how much money the pirates obtain, they will always be hungry. Both parties have different methods of negotiation. Phillips uses mental tactics whereas the pirates utilize physical violence. The antagonists are driven by avarice, going as far as keeping Phillips with them even after the U.S. Navy becomes involved. Conversely, Phillips is driven by intellect. He is a brilliant ship captain who, unlike modern-day thriller heroes, uses his mind rather than his brawn to stay alive. The tense character of Phillips is portrayed powerfully by Tom Hanks. Hanks makes Phillips a relatable, flawed hero. Not since his survivalist performance in “Cast Away” has Hanks represented a traumatized, restless man so successfully. There are scenes where the actor shrieks and yells in frustration. Consider a sequence where Phillips loses his cool and begins wrestling with the pirates, exploding in a state of fury. The modesty of Phillips coupled with the irritating egotism of the pirates makes for a compelling dispute in this scene. Hanks always seems paranoid, going deep into character. History has already spoiled the ending of “Captain Phillips”; therefore it is up to Greengrass to make the final scenes seem unpredictable. When the Navy SEALs interfere, the pirates’ abuse of Phillips worsens and the tension escalates. There is chaos in every scene, and the pacing is relentlessly brisk. Greengrass uses a handheld camera, roaming and moving it in almost every shot, representing two large themes: progress and movement. Phillips must be rescued before he reaches Somali soil and causes a large uproar in the White House. The progression of the Navy’s mission parallels the ongoing trip of the pirates. It is a race, with Captain Phillips’s life at the middle of it. There is nothing groundbreaking or original about “Captain Phillips.” Greengrass doesn’t reinvent the genre, but excels in it. The movie is an expertly made thriller with a memorable performance at its core. The final minutes show Tom Hanks’s most sympathetic acting. The pirates have just been shot. Phillips is crying in pain, blocking out the voices around him as he stares at the blood of the pirates on his body. He is disturbed by the feeling of the blood of the men who wanted his own blood. The volume of the film lowers until all we hear is white noise. We are inside the sad, troubled and tormented mind of Captain Phillips, listening to the still, fragile air.