“Captain Phillips” is arguably the best pirate movie ever. This isn’t any of that flamboyant pirate stuff with voodoo and hoodoo (for the record I still love “Pirates of the Caribbean”), this is about real pirates doing the dirty work in a modern world. There is no glory or glamour to their exploits on the seas: these pirates do grunt work for the powerful warlords that control Somalia. When these pirates don’t get what they want, they turn to desperate measures because of their circumstances. But one does not simply take Tom Hanks hostage without a fight.
Based on the 2009 true story, “Captain Phillips” details the Somali pirate takeover of the Maersk Alabama ship on its way to Mombasa, Kenya. Before that point, the film establishes Richard Phillips’ relationship with his wife and then the tight regiment he commands on the Alabama. Phillips is a by-the-book kind of man that has his crew (who would rather enjoy their coffee) enact drills to prepare for incidents like what they eventually face. Then, despite their best efforts, the real pirates soon show up and manage to slip aboard, setting off a battle of wits and determination.
Whether Hanks’ portrayal of Phillips is glorified (as the real-life crew members have recently claimed) or not is beside the point. Seeing a protagonist use his only his strategic skills rather than brawn to combat a dangerous situation is both refreshing and incredibly compelling. Bottled reserve is Hanks’ greatest asset. Phillips and the crew lack the firepower of their Somali adversaries, and instead rely on stealth and cunning to maintain control.
While director Paul Greengrass has established a career of tightly coiled tension (like “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “United 93”), screenwriter Billy Ray also deserves a lot of credit for maintaining the intensity all throughout. Much of this is because Ray’s script conceives this story as one where one false move could mean certain death, and every word spoken by Phillips to hold back the pirates from going ballistic counts. The suspense runs thick as he switches between two perspectives on the ship, Phillips (who is held at gunpoint) and the crew (whom are being searched for), though surprisingly for those who don’t know the full story, this is only the first half.
After the midway point, the pirates realize that they won’t meet the demands of their overlords and take Phillips with them in one of the ships lifeboats. Despite the claustrophobic setting (perfect for Greengrass’ loosely chaotic camera style), this section isn’t quite as taut as it was on the Alabama. Yet even as repetition starts settling in, we get a better since of the desperation of these men, particularly pirate leader Muse.
Hanks may dominate the film (the ending’s emotional catharsis totally sits on his shoulders and he knocks it out of the park with some of his best work), but Barkhad Abdi very nearly matches him. Ray and Greengrass draw parallels between the two captains and how far they will go for their men, and through Abdi’s performance we see the realization that he is failing his mission and will suffer the consequences for it. While the film stops short of placing sympathy on Muse, we understand the situation he has been put in and that dimension makes him a more fascinating adversary.
His contentious struggle with Phillips never gives the viewer a chance to breathe, even with knowledge of the real life outcome. By the end, it feels like we have experienced the same exhaustion and exasperation that Phillips feels, making that climatic standoff with the Navy SEALs and its aftermath matter more. “Captain Phillips” will leave audiences entertained and shaken in equal measure, and reminds us why Tom Hanks is one of this generation’s most celebrated actors.