Khat Ban is a herb that has been part of Somalian tradition for hundreds of years. It is a chewed upon Amphetmaine-like substance that causes excitement and euphoria. In Peter Greengrass’ riveting “Captain Phillips”, the pirates that are about to take over Richard Phillips’ ship chew on Khat Ban to overcome the nerves and fears that come with taking on such a mission. The brilliance of Greengrass’ film is how we get to know these pirates not as villains but as impoverished third world human beings with not much to lose. We’ve all heard about Somali pirate takeovers at sea in the news but the topic has never really been given a Hollywood treatment until now. Which makes the film even more interesting. Greengrass touches upon many themes, including the negative effects of globalization and the isolation of such impoverished third world nations. Somali actor Barkhad Abdi is exceptional as Muse, one of four pirates trying to overtake an American cargo ship 145 miles off the Somali coast.
Abdi’s scenes with a brilliantly effective Tom Hanks as the Captain are what makes “Captain Phillips” indisputably great. Greengrass smartly decides to cast non-professional actors for the Somali roles, the risk pays off brilliantly. Abdi, looking jaunt and intense, matches Hanks scene for scene. He is exceptional and Oscar-worthy in a role that demands a lot of intense, real emotions. Muse nicknames Hanks “Irish” and calls him that many times throughout the film, their bond is a complicated one. Both men understand each other: Phillips knows Muse is doing what he has to do to survive and Muse knows that the Captain wants his men on-board unharmed and will do whatever it takes to achieve that. These two men share more in common than one might think and both are relying on the American government to get them out of their situation.
We all know how it ended, that’s besides the point. What “Captain Phillips” ends up being about is the bond between these two men. They both come from significantly different cultural backgrounds yet they fully understand each other, they know why they are both there. While the other pirates, played by Barkhad Addirahman, Faysal Ahme and Mahat M. Ali, couldn’t care less about Phillips, Muse does. Abdi is phenomenal and performs the rare -maybe never before achieved- feat of giving the best performance in a Tom Hanks movie. He and his pirate co-horts chew on Khat Ban religiously throughout the ordeal, trying to manage the situation by getting a simple high. They however find out it’ll take much more than just herb to get them through their botched hostage-taking ordeal. The 135 minute “Captain Phillips” might sometimes feel by-the-books but whenever Abdi and Hanks are onscreen your eyes can’t look away. They bring “Captain Phillips” up a notch and make it Greengrass best film since 2006’s “United 93”. Just remember the name Barkhad Abdi, it will start getting mentioned more and more come awards season.