In Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass pulls off the same remarkable feat he accomplished with United 93: He takes a true story in which the outcome is already known and transforms it into a gripping, wrenching, devastating thriller. This one plays like an enormous punch to the gut. The movie is based on Richard Phillips’ book-length account of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by Somali pirates, the first such attack on a U.S. vessel in 200 years. But although the scenario might seem limited in dramatic potential, screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, State of Play) takes a journalistic approach to the story, turning it into a procedural in which every detail contributes to the whole: the way the ragtag group of pirates comes together; the day-to-day operations of the mammoth ship; the limited resources Phillips had to defend his boat against an attack and the ingenious tactics he employed in order to save his crew.
Like United 93, Captain Phillips doesn’t take political sides. Greengrass approaches the story from the center out, showing instead of telling and focusing on the humanity of its protagonists instead of their ideals. The movie allows us to interpret everyone’s actions instead of telling us what to think and how to feel about them. We come to understand why the skinny Muse (the terrific Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the four-man pirate gang, feels justified in trying to rob the cargo ship (he’s a small-time fisherman who resents big corporations draining the resources of the African coast; he’s resentful of what he perceives to be American imperialism). We learn exactly how a few armed men on a rickety speedboat could manage to board and commandeer such an enormous craft. And through Tom Hanks’ remarkable performance as the eponymous protagonist, we experience the constant rush of emotions the by-the-book captain felt, from dread to fear, desperation to panic, despair to hopelessness.
Hanks has entered a stage in his career where we take him for granted. He’s a reliably warm and funny presence (Larry Crowne, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) who occasionally takes show-off, look-at-me! chances (Cloud Atlas) that don’t amount to much. But in Captain Phillips, Hanks delivers his subtlest, most internalized performance to date. Phillips is an experienced sailor, a pragmatic man who believes in procedure and routine. When he’s thrust into a situation where the normal rules no longer apply, he has to relearn everything he knows and try to deal with captors who have impossible expectations and place a much lesser value on human life than he does. Hanks allows you to watch this man react to extreme circumstances and respond the best he can. A big part of the film’s considerable suspense comes in seeing what Phillips will try next, even after he’s been trapped into the tightest corner imaginable.
Greengrass tones down his trademark shaky-cam style just enough that you can always follow the action, although the handheld camerawork still makes you feel like you’re living the movie along with its characters. The movie’s first scene is so clunky — Phillips’ ride to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener, sporting a horrible frizzy-hair wig), during which they talk about how much the world has changed and how much better things used to be — that you brace yourself for a disaster. But by the time Captain Phillips reaches its stunning final scene, which manages to be happy and emotionally devastating at the same time, even that horrible opening makes sense. I’ve purposely avoiding recounting what happens in Captain Phillips, because even though the story is well-known, the movie plays even better if you’re not familiar with the facts. But Greengrass’ treatment of this material — and Hanks’ extraordinary performance — makes the movie required viewing for the informed and uninformed alike.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Catherine Keener.
Director: Paul Greengrass.
Screenwriter: Billy Ray. Based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty.
Producers: Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, Scott Rudin.
A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 134 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Opens Friday Oct. 11 at area theaters.