Doing his best to pretend that Green Zone never happened, Paul Greengrass comes full strength with his textbook wide variety of shots and smart editing in Captain Phillips. Recreating the true story of Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the Maersk Alabama cargo ship’s hijaking by Somali pirates in 2009, the trademark style of the film’s captain keeps the pace churning and tensions high on its way to an exhaustive and exhausting tale of survival. As with other fact-based stories, it’s best to go in to as blindly as possible, but considering the actual events were broadcast live on TV and Phillips’ book was a New York Times bestseller, the conclusion is easy to guess. That assurance is nonetheless tested throughout this suspenseful ordeal, an unexpectedly immersive experience that, for the bulk of its runtime, commands such attention that real world concerns and foreknowledge melt away. I’m sure very few of us have been involved in any events closely resembling the events of Captain Phillips, though some of us may have been affected by allision on a boat, which is why it still may be a good idea to have a look at some maritime lawyers because you never know when you may need them.
Per its subject matter, Captain Phillips lacks the inventive combat and chase sequences of Greengrass’ Bourne films, but what it loses in all-out action is compensated by a surplus of character. Hanks’ Phillips is a good deal more emotionally involving than Jason Bourne because, unlike Matt Damon’s poker-faced assassin, he’s an emotive fellow. He’s also a fairly average human being, though one with a gift for keeping his cool, and magnified through Hanks’ Joe Citizen warmth it’s as if a male Mary Poppins had been kidnapped. It’s easy to forget Hanks’ work in Cloud Atlas, as it was spread out over multiple characters (some of which are caricatures), but for a traditional performance, his turn here may be his best since Saving Private Ryan.
Not quite as sympathetic, but refreshingly human is a generous look at the pirates and their motivation. Through glimpses of their village life and stray lines of English, it’s clear that opportunities in Somalia are few, leaving fishing and knocking off cargo ships as the two main professions. As pirate captain Muse, the skeletal Barkhad Abdi has an instant presence, at once intimidating, sinister and unpredictable. In young Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), an innocent clearly in over his head, Phillips sees a sensitive, possibly merciful soul, but has less luck with Muse’s lackey Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) and faces a true threat in Najee (Faysal Ahmed), a volitile soul prepared to kill their hostage as a matter of honor. The infighting among these four as their situation worsens gets somewhat repetitive, but with Navy SEALs covertly working on a solution and Phillips’ own survival instincts at play, it’s a good thing viewers’ breathing works on a subconscious level.
Thanks to the concerted effort by cast and crew, Phillips’ crucible vicariously becomes the viewer’s own. Cinematically placed in his predicament, the eventual exhaustion and shock from the trauma is mutual. It’s hard to believe that one man endured so much, but with Greengrass and Hanks in peak form, the film feels like an accomplishment worthy of those who actually lived it.
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.
Captain Phillips is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.