With Captain Phillips, the British action filmmaker Paul Greengrass takes a break from sending Matt Damon racing across rooftops, his efforts devoted instead to re-creating—with queasy, you-are-there immediacy—the 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates. Dividing the focus among a variety of vantage points, including those of the besieged crew, the young hijackers, and the control-room cavalry, Greengrass echoes the immersive docudrama strategy of his own United 93. Only in this case, there are fewer holes in the official story: While that earlier film speculated wildly about what occurred aboard the doomed aircraft, making its commitment to “just the facts ma’am” realism a bit suspect, Captain Phillips draws heavily from a seemingly reliable source—namely, the first-person account of its eponymous seafarer, played here by Tom Hanks. By adopting the kidnapped captain’s perspective, the movie also gains a dramatic center its predecessor lacked, though the tradeoff is that the events are largely filtered through his attitudes.
An early car-ride exchange between Hanks and his wife (Catherine Keener, on hand for a single scene) clumsily foregrounds the film’s thematic angle, which amounts to viewing both its hero and his armed adversaries as casualties of a cutthroat, money-driven system. Minutes later, Greengrass drops in on the Somali pirates, just minding their own business on dry land until their warlord boss demands that they get to pillaging and plundering. Already, screenwriter Billy Ray is overselling the parallels between his dueling protagonists, two men pushed into extreme circumstances by the financial interests that control their fates. “It’s just business,” insists wiry, teenage ringleader Barkhad Abdi after his team successfully seizes the American vessel. But something deeper, a captains’ code perhaps, will eventually influence his decisions, as Hanks earns the begrudging respect of his captor. The film stops just short of having one of them say, in his best Romulan, “You and I are of a kind.”
More often that not, however, Captain Phillips is riveting. Though he remains unfortunately convinced that violently shaking his camera is the best way to achieve visual urgency, Greengrass nevertheless excels at pressure-cooker scenarios. There’s a level of procedural detail here, and an interest in specific maritime protocol, that lends the film’s hijacking sequence—in which Hanks delays the attack using breakneck steering and a clever bluff—a jolt of believability. Unlike many of his Hollywood contemporaries, the director prefers to fill the margins of his movies with unknowns. While even exceptional pictures like Zero Dark Thirty and the upcoming 12 Years A Slave sometimes violate the reality of their worlds with distracting star cameos, Greengrass uses a sea of unfamiliar faces to strengthen the verisimilitude. Captain Phillips is stacked top to bottom with exceptional no-name actors, from Hanks’ crew, evading capture in the bowels of the ship, to the young Somalis, who bite off much more than they can chew.
At the helm of this vessel is Hanks, exuding levelheaded confidence and an almost paternal warmth; it’s his best performance in years, one that resurrects the actor’s dormant gift—shared by Hollywood ancestors like Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart—for charismatic decency. Both Captain Phillips and Captain Phillips understand that being a great leader involves a degree of manipulation. What keeps the man alive, even after his enemies have taken him hostage aboard the lifeboat and fled for Somalian sanctuary, is his ability to ingratiate himself to these desperate criminals. But is his respect for Abdi, a villain undone by the pressures of command, genuine or just a survival strategy? In its best moments, Captain Phillips gains a touch of Dog Day Afternoon melancholy, with only Hanks grasping the reality of his captors’ situation. That quality, alas, is a bit incompatible with the badassery of the ZDT-style climax, which finds the film’s interests drifting toward the armed forces that intervened. For all Greengrass’ attempts at dramatic fairness and balance, there’s little doubt as to where his sympathies really lie. It’s hard to blame him for taking sides.