Paul Greengrass directs one kind of movie better than anyone else in the movie industry, and “Captain Phillips” is exactly that kind: a fact-based thriller that sustains suspense moment to moment. Even if you know the outcome, you go away saying, “This is how it must have been” at every turn.
Greengrass earned an Oscar nomination for directing “United 93” in similar style seven years ago, and “Phillips” has a little more mystery than that scenario. We may recall the 2009 incident in which Somali pirates take over a U.S. container ship, the Maersk Alabama, off the coast of Africa; we may even know what happened to Captain Richard Phillips and his crew.
But most of us haven’t heard or read complete accounts of the incident, so tension between the resourceful skipper (played by Tom Hanks) and Muse, self-appointed captain of the pirates (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), stays high. Muse may call his captive “Irish” in a friendly way, but the Somali remains an adversary with little control over his crew of three brigands.
As in “United 93,” Greengrass and writer Billy Ray begin by showing both sides preparing to go to work. Phillips packs his gear and bids goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener in a tiny cameo); Muse goes down to the beach to choose confederates for the assault, like a construction foreman hiring day laborers from a parking lot.
For both men, these are jobs. Phillips carefully checks security and safety procedures on his container ship, which happens to be carrying emergency aid for East Africa among other cargo. Muse selects potential helpers according to seaworthiness and strength.
The filmmakers don’t ask us to sympathize with the Somalis, but we’re left wondering what legitimate work awaits those who don’t turn to piracy. Phillips tells Muse early on that he’s smart enough to turn his leadership skills to other tasks. Surely he could do something else for a living? “Maybe in America, Irish,” Muse replies. “Maybe in America.”
And as in “United 93,” we see the endangered heroes (Phillips’ crew) performing small acts of bravery and employing everyday materials to defend themselves against the hijackers.
Ray and Greengrass started their research with “A Captain’s Duty,” the book written by Phillips and Stephan Talty, and they pay attention to the day-to-day details of life aboard a ship. When one of the hoses designed to sink the pirates’ boat gets pointed in the wrong direction, and the Somalis capitalize on that mistake to board the Maersk, we never question whether that really occurred. (This is a bad movie month for Maersk; a rogue shipping container bearing that name wrecks Robert Redford’s yacht in the upcoming “All is Lost.”)
By the end, we see the movie from many vantage points. Sometimes we’re with the crew aboard the Maersk, sometimes we’re in cramped quarters with the pirates and their main hostage, sometimes we’re aboard the Navy rescue ships chasing them or dropping from a copter with Navy SEALS. Greengrass integrates these aspects the way he did in the first two movies about Jason Bourne, cross-cutting but never leaving us in doubt about what’s happening. (Christopher Rouse, an Oscar-winner for “The Bourne Ultimatum” and a nominee for “United 93,” has edited Greengrass’ last five films.)
The intense Abdi has charisma and, of course, novelty: No one has ever seen him before, so we accept his performance right away. I did the same for Hanks, though I’ve seen him countless times; I didn’t believe he had anything new to bring to a role, but he projects fear and tenacity and intelligence in a unique combination.
Hanks also brings an emotional component to the role that many actors wouldn’t. The Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the action world never seem to be in jeopardy, however outgunned and imperiled they are, so their victories inspire no relief or joy. As we bounce over rough seas on the Maersk, we know just what will be lost if the Somalis don’t keep their trembling fingers off their triggers. As the title suggests, this is not a movie about an incident: It’s a movie about a man who stays very real to us.