Western nations found it very easy to ignore the ugly side of globalisation when the fallout from extreme exploitation led to civil wars and appalling poverty in distant lands with little comeback for the perpetrators. It was a one way ticket or, at least, that is what they thought until new information technology reached the victims, who suddenly found some pretty ugly means, themselves, to tear up the rule book and turn the tables. It was this perilous state of affairs that lay behind two worlds colliding during the mid-noughties when local fisherman/pirates picked off commercial ships as they turned the corner at Somalia – still a necessary trade route – and routinely demanded and received huge ransom payments from insurance companies prepared to chuck dollars by the sack-load from airplanes flying above the Indian Ocean coastline.
By the time that Maersk Alabama was caught in this economic rupture four years ago, it was the sixth vessel in a week to suffer a sustained piracy onslaught. The vessel’s captain, Richard Phillips, provided a blow by blow account of the incident in a book co-written with Stephan Talty, which Paul Greengrass has now adapted for the big screen with a script from experienced screenwriter, Billy Ray.
This is familiar Greengrass territory; an explosive true story, intelligent contextualisation and a turbo-charged tension racked-up to maximum that keeps us on the edge of our seats even though we know the ending. It is most closely related to his 07/11 drama, ‘United 93’ – almost forming a companion piece – and, once again, Barry Ackroyd’s hand-held camera places us at the heart of the action, giving it the cinematographer’s now trademark docu-drama aesthetic, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker’.
Tom Hanks delivers a powerful performance as Phillips, the Everyman hero out of his depth when faced with extreme danger but who holds his nerve in a battle of wits that threatens to mutate into violence any second. He has a sense of foreboding as soon as two pint-sized skiffs hit his radar – ”They’re not here to fish!” he warns – but it counts for nothing when the ship’s defence system amounts to little more than short range water hoses.
Enigmatic newcomer, Barkhad Abdi, is equally good as the pirate’s razor-sharp leader, Muse, who, with just three men, secures control of the ship too easily. Pointing towards his eyes, Muse commands Phillips to look – “look at me, look at me” – before declaring that he “is the captain now”. These are eyes with a magnetic attraction, drawing us in every time Abdi is on screen but, ultimately, they reveal nothing of what’s going on beneath.
It’s a fascinating dwell between two men, whose respective worldview’s preclude any mutual understanding beyond second guessing each others’ tactics. One has everything to lose and the other starts with nothing but both, in very different ways, are beholden to greater authority; Muse to the Somalian warlords who arm him up to the hilt and Phillips to invisible forces that deny him protection but mobilise powerful ‘state of the art’ navel arsenal as soon as the US’s credibility is at stake.
The most affecting scene comes at the end when Phillips, temporarily stripped of his dignity, gives way to trauma.
The most revealing scene takes place in Muse’s Somalian village before the attack.
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