Captain Phillips is about a group of Somali pirates who invade a U.S. cargo ship—but it’s also, most importantly, about the quiet, unassuming courage of one man. (There’s a reason the film is called Captain Phillips and not Terror at Sea or somethin’.)
And thank goodness that man is played by Tom Hanks, who projects decency and normalcy like no actor since Jimmy Stewart.
His Captain Richard Phillips is smart and seasoned and good at his job, but he’s no swashbuckler. It’s just that, as captain, it’s his responsibility to protect his crew and his ship—and that’s what he’s going to try to do, no matter how terrified he may be.
The director Paul Greengrass (who also did the heartbreaking but riveting United 93 and two of the Bourne films) excels at jittery, documentary-style action. Very much to his credit, he introduces us to the band of Somali pirates, humanizing them. They’re terrorized by a local warlord and desperate to feed their families. They’re led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a smart, but twitchy, young man with a dangerously fragile ego. Just as Phillips is not traditionally heroic, Muse is not traditionally villainous. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Under different circumstances, he could be a good man—but his desperation makes him unpredictable.
After a bit of throat clearing when Phillips drives with his wife (Catherine Keener) to the airport, things get cooking when the captain sees two skiffs filled with gun-wielding pirates approaching his ship.
He tells his non-essential crew to hide, notifies the coast guard (who are more or less helpless), and devises a clever scheme to deter the pirates. (It actually works, to an extent. One of the skiffs relents. But Muse and his crew keep coming.)
The tension, as Muse and his crew get closer and closer to the ship, is almost unbearable. Greengrass cannily uses the score—by Henry Jackman—to great effect. The music is increasingly loud and ominous. Then, when Muse manages to hook his ladder to the ship, all goes silent.
The ship has been breached.
From there, it’s a kind of tête-à-tête between Phillips and Muse, with Phillips trying to give the illusion that he’s deferring to Muse, while secretly plotting against him.
Eventually, however, Muse and his men escape into a small life capsule, with Phillips martyring himself, in a way, as hostage. The claustrophobia in these scenes is intense.
Much will be said, justifiably, about the work Hanks does in the final 10 minutes of the film—quite frankly, it’s some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in my life—but his performance throughout is exceptional. In a way, it reminded of Bryan Cranston’s work in the early seasons of Breaking Bad. Like Walter White, Phillips is constantly dissembling. He’s saying one thing while thinking another—we watch him think. We sense only through his eyes that he’s scared and that his mind is racing, searching for a way out of this mess.
Entertaining, nerve-wracking, and humane, Captain Phillips would be a good film under any circumstances, but Hanks’ performance elevates it to something truly special.