By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
The 2009 hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship by Somali pirates — and a Hollywood-ready rescue by Navy SEALs — was rare for a modern international crisis, one not being tweeted or YouTube'd from the scene as it happened. That won't happen often from now on.
Director Paul Greengrass, who thrives on re-creating such tight-spot tension, turns audiences into after-the-fact eyewitnesses with Captain Phillips, docu-dramatizing the hijacking and four harrowing days that followed. Knowing how the story ends doesn't spoil anything; without social media's immediacy we haven't "seen" the movie before actually seeing it.
The movie plays as verite' as scripted cinema can, with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) skillfully applying hand-held camera jitter for authenticity's sake. It's a shame of sorts that such a celebrity as Tom Hanks plays the title role, sticking out among mostly unknown faces, reminding us that what often appears real isn't documentary. It would be a bigger shame if we didn't have his performance to admire.
Hanks portrays Capt. Richard Phillips, a veteran merchant mariner who's departing to command what seems like just another cargo shipment when the movie begins, this one from Oman to Kenya on the Maersk Alabama. His wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) knows his job's risks, and the rewards their children, home and future depend upon. Phillips' sense of duty and reasons to live are quickly made clear.
The pirates also have their motivations, not all that different from Phillips'. Billy Ray's screenplay briskly illustrates Somalia's poverty among fishermen whose boats are hired by warlords to hijack ships for ransom. Plucked from a daily lineup of desperate applicants is Abduwali Muse, played by Somali emigre Barkhad Abdi, a runty, raw talent literally sweating skeletal menace.
Eventually a fascinating antagonism develops between these two captains. Each is essentially operating alone. Most of Phillips' crew is hidden below deck, and Muse's fractious band of pirates could turn any minute. Phillips and Muse needle each other, lie and call bluffs, one being steadily manipulated by the other. Hanks and Abdi are the striking cultural contrast and emoting equals this movie requires at its core.
Like Greengrass' previous true-life thriller United 93, Captain Phillips pays dogged attention to crisis details: evasive tactics delaying the pirates boarding, the big-stick posturing of U.S. military forces, and a final act rivaling the finale of Zero Dark Thirty for sniper-bullet intensity. Henry Jackman's tasteful musical score doesn't announce tension but frequently enhances it, another measure of the movie's effective understatement.
Although Captain Phillips expertly establishes the stakes and dangers Phillips faced during his ordeal, the moments seared into my memory occur after the situation is under control. At this point in his celebrated career, there shouldn't be much new that Hanks can show us. But there is, as the actor reaches deep inside to express the relief of dodging death as I've never seen it played before. He's in shock; we're awed. It might make a great nominee clip at next year's Oscars.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.