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A Pirate Saga More Sobering Than Swashbuckling

Barkhad Abdi (middle) plays Muse, the leader of a band of Somali pirates who take over a freighter in <em>Captain Phillips.</em>
Hopper Stone
Columbia Pictures
Barkhad Abdi (middle) plays Muse, the leader of a band of Somali pirates who take over a freighter in Captain Phillips.

Most kidnapping melodramas have final scenes — after their climaxes — that are, effectively, throwaways. There are sighs of relief, tearful reunions with families, cameras that dolly back on domestic tableaux to suggest the world has at last been righted.

I think it's telling that in Captain Phillips the most overwhelming scene is after the resolution, in the infirmary of a ship. So much terror and moral confusion has gone down — so much pain — that the cumulative tension can't be resolved by violence. The movie's grip remains strong even when it cuts to black.

The story was in the headlines in 2009. American Richard Phillips was the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a Danish-owned container ship seized by four Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. The hijackers failed to secure the Alabama but managed to escape with Phillips in a covered lifeboat. They said they'd execute him unless they were paid millions of dollars. Then they headed for the Somali coast.

The movie begins rather limply, with a lot of aimless, hand-held camera footage of Phillips — played by Tom Hanks — driving to the airport from his house in Vermont and then getting on his ship. But as soon as he and his crew sight the small boat of Somalis headed their way, the dread takes hold like a vise.

The Alabama doesn't have guns or security guards, but it's still impressive that the Somalis get aboard this behemoth of a ship while being blasted with water cannons and at such a high speed. They're determined and resourceful. In the wheelhouse, the four — led by actor Barkhad Abdi as a man known as "Muse" — finally confront Phillips. It is shot and edited to suggest a violation of a sacred space.

The face of the Somali-born Abdi as the self-appointed new captain is like nothing I've seen in a Hollywood film. It's so skinny he looks starved, and his teeth seem out of scale. The triumph of the actor and the director, Paul Greengrass, is that we come to feel as deeply for Muse as for his hostage. He truly doesn't want anyone to be hurt — and he has to work hard to rein in one particularly aggressive fellow hijacker. Muse is there because his warlord has demanded it. He speaks tenderly of moving to America and buying a car. He's so young, so naive, and yet so dangerous.

Director Greengrass made his name using jittery hand-held cameras to create a newsreel-like present tense in the Irish drama Bloody Sunday and the Sept. 11 movie United 93. His second and third Bourne pictures were in the same style, and I think his overreliance on that style often makes him seem like a one-trick pony.

But in this movie's last half, when the camera is stuck inside the lifeboat with the crazy-anxious characters — the kidnappers and their hostage — the jitters finally seem earned. Hanks' performance is internal, but his eyes are so expressive that we're guided by their flickers. At times he makes us revile his captors, at other times view them with pity. We're always on Phillips' side — and the side of the hostage negotiators and the U.S. Navy — but we come to see the larger tragedy of the Somalis' existence.

There's a perils-of-globalization theme in Captain Phillips, telegraphed early when Phillips says to his wife, played by Catherine Keener, "The world's movin' so fast." That's one reason the scene after the brutal climax is so powerful. Mostly it works because it's played so beautifully. But it's also because, whatever Phillips' fate, the movie suggests that we're never safe — that the forces that put him in harm's way are still out there, closer than we realize, speeding toward our giant ship of state. (Recommended)

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David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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