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As Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) boards his massive cargo liner stacked with Maersk freight and climbs to his cabin, he halfheartedly checks several gate locks. Some gates are open, and even when closed, they rattle like tinny high-school lockers. With a recent piracy warning for the waters off Somalia he’s about to travel, Cap warns his first mate: The gates must stay locked at all times. That’s just one of several measures—including testing water hoses and running an emergency drill—Cap takes to ensure the safety of his vessel.
But as the screen cuts to Somali pirates, eyes wide in a drug-induced hysteria, shouting orders and loading boats with AK-47s, already the Captain’s measures feel woefully inadequate. Soon, the pirates locate Phillips’ boat using a crude sonar system, and the hunt begins. By the time the pirates’ leader—a self-described businessman named Muse intending to collect a million dollar “tax” for Westerners’ use of their waters—boards Captain Phillips’ ship, the pirates easily shoot open the locks, rush the pilothouse, and take Phillips and several others hostage.
From this point, director Paul Greengrass (United 93, Bourne Supremacy) masterfully employs hand-held camera shots and heart-pounding action as a match of wits unfolds between Muse, Captain Phillips, and their men. Based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips’ kidnapping in 2009, Greengrass here presents three-dimensional villains and vulnerable heroes. While drug use and occasional bloody violence earn the film a PG-13 rating, both are used tactfully in the service of the story.
In a moment when real-life African violence has escalated, Captain Phillips dramatically portrays the cost of Western apathy and half measures toward lawlessness. Shoddy locks, tinny gates, and men armed with water hoses against AK-47s belie a suicidal attitude toward the forces of chaos just over the horizon. But in Tom Hanks’ outstanding performance as Captain Phillips, we also see the empathy and courage that make American society—with all its faults—still worth protecting.