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It begins like a schoolyard game of baseball—two captains picking players for their teams. But instead of bats, these kids carry guns. Their teams are made up of young Somali pirates and their game is hijacking cargo ships to be held for huge ransoms. However these impoverished youth won’t see a fraction of the ransom money. They are merely the expendable pawns used by Somali warlords who wage war from a safe distance while taking the payoff.
The events portrayed in this movie took place in 2009 when the American-flagged cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, set sail with Captain Richard Phillips at the helm. Tom Hanks plays the 53-year-old captain who leaves his wife and two college-aged children in Vermont. His boat is alone in the ocean, 240 nautical miles from the Somali shore, when a group of four armed pirates approach the vessel in a fast-moving skiff. The unarmed sailors turn on the fire hoses to ward off the pirates, but the attackers still manage to board.
Under orders from the captain, most of the crew hides in the engine room, shutting down the ship’s power and leaving the boat dead in the water. Up on deck, the pirates shoot through the locks on the pirate gates and make their way to the bridge where they hold the captain and two of his crewmen at gunpoint. Unable to navigate the ship, the captors begin a deck-by-deck search for the missing crew. But in the darkened engine room, the hiding mariners capture one of the pirates.
While trying to arrange an exchange of captains, Phillips agrees to give the pirates $30,000 from the ship’s safe and access to a lifeboat. However the pirates renege on the swap and take Phillips as a hostage in the lifeboat. Tensions build as the crew of the Maersk Alabama follows the lifeboat from a safe distance until a naval destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, arrives and begins negotiations with the pirates.
Director Paul Greengrass has a talent for building tension (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93). And his skills are no less evident in this movie. Employing some handheld camera work and emphasizing the claustrophobic atmosphere of the enclosed lifeboat, he turns up the heat as the Somali pirates repeatedly send out calls to their mother ship. But when their pleas for help remain unanswered and supplies begin to run low, the dire situation takes a toll on the young captors who become increasingly agitated.
Infrequent profanities and the Somali’s use of the stimulant called khat provide some of the film’s content concerns, along with beatings and bloody injuries. However the biggest issue for viewers will be the intensity of the plot, particularly as the Navy Seals are deployed to take down the hijackers.
While controversy swirls around the decisions that put the crew of the Maersk Alabama in harm’s way, the heroic efforts of Captain Phillips are what the filmmakers focus on—that and the men and women on the warships who put an end to the terrifying standoff.
Captain Phillips is rated PG-13: for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Max Martini, John Magaro
Studio: 2013 Columbia Pictures
Website: Official site for Captain Phillips.