Armed Somali pirates have just boarded the Maersk Alabama. The leader of the group, a skinny pirate named Muse (Barkhad Abdi), announces to Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) that this is just business and “Every-ting will be OK.” But when Muse demands to see Phillips’s hidden crew by threatening to shoot someone, something really interesting happens.
“I thought you were a businessman! Is this how you do business?” In another movie, that trigger gets pulled. But in Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips”, the clever routine of shrewd negotiation, strategy and respect continues. “Captain Phillips” is a pulse-pounding thriller, but it’s a film about leadership more so than action and bullets.
Phillips was a real shipping captain whose boat was hijacked by pirates in 2009. The film opens with Phillips saying a tough goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener) as he leaves for his voyage around the coast of Africa. They talk of the tough job market for their son and how tough the American way has become.
It’s a feeling Muse knows all too well. His commute involves him trudging to the ocean at the behest of gun-toting warlords. He’s allowed to pick his crew from a crop of dozens, but his real options are awfully limited.
Both Muse and Phillips play the parts of the divisive leader, someone forced to make tough, controversial decisions in the best interest of the crew. Hanks leads seemingly needless drills to prepare for pirates, while Muse beats a rival with a wrench to prove his authority.
So when they finally meet, the tension isn’t just provided by Barry Ackroyd’s signature shaky cam (something that goes, forgive the pun, overboard more than once), it’s in their clever trading of deals and underhand strategies. Unarmed and lost in Somali waters, the crew is certainly ceding the upper hand to the pirates, but Muse’s respect for Phillips keeps everyone alive. Greengrass stretches their persistence to get the best deal worsens until US Navy Seals are involved in their standoff.
Greengrass is the acclaimed director behind the last two Bourne sequels, but “Captain Phillips”’s real comparison is to “United 93” in how each convincingly humanize the villains. But whereas “United 93” was a movie about the everyman, one that subtracted a movie star or true hero from the equation, “Captain Phillips” pits two smart individuals against one another. Neither are strictly enemies, even though they’ll do what they need to survive, but both respect one another enough to play the game.
It’s a trait we often see in leaders, the ability to operate under duress and negotiate in the best interest of everyone. Look at how Hanks leads once the ship is boarded. He provides not a warning but a firm instruction. He shows his fear and lets his crew know he’s at their level, but he’s in control.
That scene alone demonstrates Hanks’s brilliance and versatility as an actor, shedding his trademark likeability for a measured, patient and observant character who is polarizing, but trusting to his crew more than anything. Abdi too shows depth and authenticity, restraining himself from barking orders like his associates and showing candid disinterest as the camera lingers on his profile. As a first time performer, he holds his own with Hanks wonderfully.
Near the film’s intense finale, Muse lashes out at one of his accomplices by saying, “You asked for this. What did you expect?” The camera cuts to Phillips and reminds us of a conversation he had with his crew when faced with the threat of pirates. It’s a complicated nuance in the screenplay that again shows the similarity of these two dissimilar cultures.
But Greengrass is challenging us too. He has no interest in giving us another flag waving action movie. By making “Captain Phillips” as grimly tense as it is, he seems to go against expectations and delivers a thriller with ambition, complexity, intelligence and importance.
3 ½ stars