For freight liner captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), the day starts with a mundane drive to the airport with his wife, casually discussing the challenges their children will face in the modern workforce. “It's tough out there these days,” he ruefully acknowledges. “... 50 guys competing for the same job.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in impoverished Somalia, 50 men are competing for a job as well; hoping to be selected to a pirate crew just to stay fed and pay off their warlord oppressors for another week.
The disparity between these two worlds – one of affluence and one with no opportunity at all – is made sharply visible when men from each clash violently on the high seas in Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips. Based on harrowing true events that unfolded off the horn of Africa in 2009, Greengrass depicts in straight-faced detail how a band of four Somali pirates armed with automatic weapons pursued and boarded the Maersk Alabama and held its captain hostage in a confined lifeboat until the military intervened.
Throughout his career, Greengrass has built an impressive portfolio of action dramas that adhere to a stringent code of realism, and it's a philosophy that penetrates every facet of Captain Phillips from the performances onscreen down to every technical behind-the-scenes detail. Tom Hanks, for instance, chooses not to portray Phillips with any hint of blind heroism or extravagance, but as a pragmatic everyman whose initial composure is eroded away over the course of his ordeal, revealing in the film's poignant final minutes the type of scarring such a trauma would inflict.
This ingenuous treatment is not solely reserved for our story's hero. One of the smartest decisions of writer Billy Ray's no-nonsense screenplay is to humanize its antagonists as well. It's much to the credit of rookie actors Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Adbirahman, and Mahat M. Ali that we don't collectively recognize them as “the pirates”, but as four distinct and believable characters. Abdi in particular has been drawing notices for his performance as the pirate ringleader Muse. He goes nose to nose with veteran A-lister Hanks with a ferocity underlain by sheer desperation.
Greengrass builds his procedural with an effective fly-on-the-wall sensibility that puts you right there in the action. Barry Ackroyd's hand-held camera work effectively defines the space of each scene (particularly in that claustrophobic lifeboat), as does the vital sound mix. Piecing it all together and carefully moderating the pace is Greengrass' editor Christopher Rouse, who just might win his second Academy Award for this movie. Given that the story has been well covered by the media since it first broke, Greengrass and Rouse aren't able to derive much suspense, but the tension they construct is omnipresent and essential, especially throughout the sudden starts and stops in the action during the lengthy second half of the film.
But for all its impressive craft and edge-of-your-seat intensity, what ultimately allows Captain Phillips to resonate is the theme that it speaks to and the resulting thoughts and emotions that it triggers. In the midst of troubling economic times, it's easy for those of us in the developed world to take for the granted the relative luxury and opportunity with which we've been blessed. When Phillips suggests to his captors that there must be more to their lives than fishing and kidnapping people, one can't help but feel a sort of sympathy as Muse mutters in defeated response, “Maybe in America... Maybe in America.”
***1/2 out of ****