Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, is the fact-based story of the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of an American cargo ship called the Maersk Alabama. Greengrass, director of the most popular films in the Bourne series, has brought his usual immersive style to the story and he gets a strong, centering performance from Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips. Although Captain Phillips has been marketed as an action movie and the film's third act (after Phillips has left the ship in a lifeboat in the pirates' custody) does involve the heavy presence of the U.S. Navy, the heart of the story lies in the relationship between Phillips and the leader of his captors. Muse (Barkhad Abdi, displaying either remarkable talent or the best case of acting beginner's luck in recent memory), is under as much pressure to hijack the Alabama as Phillips is to complete the ship's journey. There's a warlord who depends on the income that Muse and his crew deliver with their hijackings and if Muse can't keep up the cash flow then the film implies that he won't have a long retirement to look forward to. Captain Phillips wants to tell a story about the human side of a global economy.
Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass, and writer Billy Ray (working from Phillips' own memoir) deserve credit for not turning Richard Phillips into a swashbuckler or a gung-ho patriot. (Imagine how bad this film would have been if it had been made in the 1980's.) Phillips is a grinder, obsessed with detail and not that interested in the crew's complaints about sailing into dangerous waters unprotected. Some of Hanks' best moments are when Phillips is at his most dismissive when a crewman (Chris Mulkey) invokes his union membership and starts to incite dissent. Ray starts his screenplay with a rather too on-the-nose scene between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) about family compromises and corporate cost-cutting, and when he's in the lifeboat with Muse later Phillips is all too aware that the Navy will not allow the pirates to win even if it means his own death. In Greengrass and Ray's telling, Richard Phillips is a man aware of his place on the balance sheet. Again though, the script hits awfully hard on the parallels between Phillips and Muse as pawns in the global economy. Could Phillips really have been this insightful about his own situation while tending to the injured foot of one his captors? Hanks underplays everything during the long lifeboat section with masterful control until a breakdown at the end, but we still can see the hands of a screenwriter at work. Events speed towards their inevitable conclusion when the Navy shows up to bring Phillips home. Lip service is paid to resolving things peacefully but any moral debate is pushed aside in favor of a protracted standoff between SEALS and the pirates. But then there's that breakdown at the end. The film finally works because of Paul Greengrass and his command of energy and pace, but most importantly because Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi never let us forget the human stakes of what we're watching.