REVIEW: Newcomer Barkhad Abdi Thrills In Paul Greengrass’s ‘Captain Phillips’

Paul Greengrass proves why he’s a master at creating dynamic, exhilarating reality-based cooker pressure films with the Tom Hanks-led Captain Phillips thriller.

The British director is no stranger to movie fans, having helmed the best two Bourne pictures (Supremacy and Ultimatum respectively) and the incredibly moving 9/11 film, United 93. Armed with the rare gift of making layered and complex work, Greengrass adapts another real-life event and presents it through his uniquely startling lens.

Back in April 2009, Somali pirates attacked the American led cargo ship Maersk Alabama. The film finds Tom Hanks, who has been handed his strongest lead role in years, valiantly trying to protect his crew as Captain Richard Phillips. Looking to go beyond the headlines by expanding the story, Phillips takes viewers through the procedure of contacting the necessary authorities, managing the situation, and attempting to stay alive and calm under pressure. In doing so, the picture also spotlights the pirates who attempt to wreak havoc by focusing on Muse (played superbly by first-timer Barkhad Abdi) and his crew members Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), teenager Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), and the volatile Najee (Faysal Ahmed).

Hanks as the merchant mariner plays easily on the screen in the Greengrass film. After leaving from his Vermont home with his wife (Catherine Keener), Phillips is on his way to the Maersk Alabama to lead his cargo ship from Oman along the mouth of the Persian Gulf, bound for Mombasa in truly dangerous waters. Hanks, although clearly an affectionate family man before leaving, handles his role as captain very seriously and sticks to certain guidelines—much to the disdain of his fellow crew members. Before any of the calamity starts, it is in these beginning moments that you see the stoic patience of a man who is ready to complete the task on-time and safely by the book.

When director Greengrass ramps up the suspense, thereby turning Phillips into a protracted cat-and-mouse game, the base level of intensity is established from the moment Muse and his mates are introduced. One scene finds Abdi’s character proving how ferocious he can be after being chastised by a fellow compatriot. After being ridiculed and challenged, Muse silences everyone with a very direct blow to the head with a metal object. From then on, Paul Greengrass and his players ratchet up the extreme scenarios as the film progresses.

Satisfyingly enough, the four antagonists are not lazily drawn out and interchangeable, and all are terrifyingly well-rounded as characters. At the top of the list is Barkhad Abdi’s commanding performance as Muse, the first to strike the Maersk Alabama and capture Captain Richard Phillips. From the moment Abdi and Hanks share the screen, Greengrass sets up parallel narratives between the two which converges into some exhilarating moments. The director uses these beginning moments (the chase and the hijack) to focus on the Somali pirates’ motivation and not pass it off as some al-Qaida plot or religious motive. Phillips notes that on the other side of the coin are these men, who are all fisherman living on the poverty line, and how they are all operating in their own way out of survival. The piracy evolved out a badly needed desire for work. The film does a great job at showing the risks Somali men and boys take to ensure their livelihood. From begging for work aboard skiffs, these providers are focused on doing anything on behalf of their warlord bosses.

With that said, Barkhad Abdi showcases a range from maniacal to empathetic to down-right ruthless. The other Somali Pirates do well to fill out their character traits, as most even seem as if they’d likely want to do anything other than kidnapp an American hostage (looking at you, Bilal).

Director Paul Greengrass highlights everyone’s motivations without straying too far into political waters. This basic set-up allows Tom Hanks and first-timer Barkhad Abdi to play off one another, which electrifies during Captain Phillips most intense moments. When the film reclaims its sea legs in the final act, audiences will be deeply engaged in the harrowing antics of both the American merchant mariner and the passionately antagonistic pirates.

Don’t believe us?! You can watch the trailer for yourself below:

Based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, the Paul Greengrass thriller hits theaters on October 11. Will you see this sure-fire Oscar contender in the cinemas?