The success of Apollo 13 and Cast Away suggests that audiences are willing to invest emotionally in seeing Tom Hanks get home safe. Presumably this is what led to his casting in the title role of Captain Phillips, a thriller about the April 2009 attack, by a ragtag quartet of teenage Somali pirates, on the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, bound from Oman to Kenya. Richard Phillips allowed himself to be the sole hostage in order to get the pirates off the ship in an enclosed lifeboat. A harrowing four-day standoff with the U.S. Navy ensued.
The director is the British action master Paul Greengrass, of United 93 and a couple of the Bourne movies, and he keeps things tense and austere. We aren’t given a lot of insight into the Captain—though we do get a surprising amount about the pirate leader, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, and his comrades.
We’re shown Phillips at the beginning, as he leaves his home in Vermont for work, exchanging commonplaces with his wife (Catherine Keener) about how tough the job market their sons will be facing has gotten; these worries are contrasted with the desperate conditions in a Somali coastal town that lead young men to raid huge international ships and demand ransom, most of which goes to faraway warlords.
But after this nod to dramatic irony, the focus is on the nuts and bolts both of mounting and of responding to a pirate attack. Greengrass knows he has us; he doesn’t have to cue our emotions, but his kinetic style quickly builds the suspense to a pretty intense pitch.
Phillips is by no means an uncontroversial figure. Maersk was reportedly sued in 2009 by crewmen alleging that his actions endangered them unnecessarily. This is touched on in the film—after an initial attack on the vessel is successfully repelled, a frightened crewman urges Phillips to flee the waters, and Phillips refuses, noting that this could easily take them into the waters of other pirates, and that anyway they all knew the risks involved in sailing that part of the world. I’m certainly no sailor, but the crewman’s suggestion seemed more sensible to me than the Captain’s dismissal of it.
In any case, Hanks, to his credit, turns off some of his customary warmth here. His Phillips comes across as something of a humorless, uncommunicative hard-ass. Once the Maersk Alabama has been raided, however, Phillips is also unquestionably depicted as a hero—levelheaded, resourceful, wily, observant, compassionate toward his captors. He never postures or gives in to anger, and he’s a natural, improvisational diplomat. How much this reflects the real person I couldn’t say, but it’s a moving characterization.
The Captain’s antagonist Muse, well played by the acting novice Barkhad Abdi, is also given his due—his courage and daring, however misguided, are fully acknowledged. He’s just a kid, obtusely unable to admit that he’s in over his head, but his Third-Worlder’s proud refusal to cower in shock and awe before the technological and political juggernaut of the West is, if not admirable, at least understandable.
Potently gripping as Captain Phillips is as a procedural thriller—it’s the best in a while—it saves its real punch for the final minutes. After Phillips is through with his ordeal, we see him, bruised and blood-spattered—Mel Gibson will be green with envy when he sees the film—being examined by a Navy doctor, and he simply turns to mush. Hanks shows us what prolonged proximity to violence and terror can actually do to a person, and not only is it some of the best acting he’s ever done, it also serves as a reproach to the action genre—to every movie that ever ended with its hero emerging from chaos and carnage with a smirk and a quip.