Taut, proficient, draining, and as tirelessly pounding as the Indian Ocean surf, Captain Phillips is a maritime adventure that scrambles your nerves, a pressure-cooker scenario dressed up as an elaborately produced star vehicle that treads into ideologically rough waters and flaunts an exceptional performance.
The film is based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), commander of the Maersk Alabama. On 8 April 2009, en route to Mombasa, Kenya with thousands of tons of food aid and under NATO advisories about potential Somali attacks, the Alabama was boarded by a group of four armed pirates. With their knowledge of the layout and the element of surprise, the 20-person crew reclaimed control of the ship, but the desperate quartet dropped a lifeboat with Phillips still inside, prompting a nail-biting 3-day standoff with the US Navy.
Director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Ultimatum) employs kinetic, in-your-face filmmaking that is simultaneously a distraction and a strength. Like United 93, he is working with a story in which we already know the outcome. Perhaps this tempted him to overcompensate, feeling the need to rove with his camera, to supplement the tension with a dramatic score. The climax allows Greengrass to best demonstrate his skills: staging a fraught game of cat and mouse in a challenging spectrum of spaces. Stuck in tiny confines with five characters, Barry Ackroyd’s live-wire, ragged-camera jitters finally seem earned.
Hanks’ remarkable acting in the last few scenes, after being trapped in claustrophobic conditions, threatened, held at gunpoint, beaten senseless, and almost drowned, may earn him a sixth Oscar nomination for Best Actor. If Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cloud Atlas made you doubt – he really can act, under the right circumstances. Splattered with the blood of his captors, Phillips lets out a guttural growl. With rescue bringing catharsis and the dawning of the cumulative toll the ordeal has taken on an otherwise strong man, he collapses into frailty, bewildered, stammering in shock, absorbing the stress of 72 hours as a hostage. The actor single-handedly dispatches Hollywood notions of macho heroism, and expresses the relief of eluding death as I’ve seldom seen it before. It’s an astute commentary: Once you’ve survived a crisis, the real work begins.
Thematically, Captain Phillips is an uncomfortable and unpleasant celebration of American military power, a knockoff of Zero Dark Thirty with lower scale and stakes, replacing a worldwide terrorist conspiracy that precipitates violent apocalypse with impoverished villagers searching for a quick cash grab. It touches too fleetingly on the collateral damage of global capitalism. Greengrass’ insistence to explain the pirates’ motivation is exhausting, unnecessary – he could rely on the superb Barkhad Abdi – and runs dangerously close to a “these people just can’t help themselves” justification.
Because Captain Phillips is an Oscar-clamouring studio picture, it must unnerve and unsettle and make us feel good about ourselves. Thus, it succeeds on its own terms, as a piercing, frenetic, methodical thriller.