The most telling moment in Paul Greengrass’ taut recreation of the book by Richard Phillips (co-written by Stephan Talty—Billy Ray penning the screenplay) comes in the second scene: Dozens of poor, desperate young Somalis are seen vying for a spot on the latest piracy expedition on the high seas. Like choosing sides for schoolyard play, their separate pleas for “pick me” and the shame of being last, ignored or shunned adds a glimmer of understanding as to why these few destitute men feel that big-time criminal activity is their best option for having a decent life.
Sadly, maddeningly, the hope of following that thread to some sort of logical conclusion is MIA in the otherwise engagingly crafted thriller that floods the screen with action and adventure. Sure, there’s a slight reference to foreign powers overfishing Somali waters and the set-piece dream of living in America, but drilling down to the root causes of what fuels this activity must be left to documentarians. Why wreck such a whale of tale about how on Earth these “true life” events ever happened in the first place?
That considerable flaw aside, the film sizzles in its pace and sheds considerable light as to how the US Navy and its specially trained SEALs go about the business of keeping the free world safe.
Captain of the would-be thieves comes in the extra-skinny form of Muse (Barkhad Abdi does a fine job as the leader of boys), yet the so-often sympathetic link between captor and captive (Phillips is kidnapped by Muse and his crew after two attempts to take over the Alabama fail miserably) never gains much traction. Muse’s seemingly easy neutralization only serves to further diminish his—until then—savvy, instinctive analytical skills. Much better is the youngest marauder, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman is the most fully developed character of the pirates; wrestling with being helped by his enemy and the lure of untold wealth when barely old enough to shave). With a son about the same age, Phillips is torn between his fatherly instincts and his own survival as the chances of both to see another day diminish with every passing hour. (The SEAls have orders not to let the captives ever reach landfall whether Phillips comes out alive or not. Safe to say if things had gone another way, a far different recounting of these events would be told, even if that would ever see the light of day.)
The climactic moment has to have been one of the most incredible feats of sniper fire ever. It provides a truly fantastic conclusion to the main narrative but seems more than a tad made-in-Hollywood bit of sharp shooting. Those with bloodlust for justice done American style will savour every frame; for many others a desire for more fact, cause-and-effect and back-story will have their appetites whetted for someone else’s take on Somali piracy unbound. JWR