Paul Greengrass’ based on a true story piracy drama Captain Phillips plays out like a riveting series of procedures and planning that gives way to negotiation and bargaining and then finally to pleading and panic. It’s not only a film that masterfully escalates the drama and action at the heart of the narrative, but actually speaks about and analyzes the actual nature of escalation itself. It’s assuredly effective as a procedural drama based around an actual US cargo ship being hijacked off the Horn of Africa in 2009, but also a procedural about actual human emotion, anchored by an exceptional performance from Tom Hanks in the lead.
Richard Phillips (Hanks) sets off from his Vermont home to go about his business: hauling a bunch of cargo from the Middle East on the Maersek Alabama, going through troubled waters known for bands of pirates looking to profiteer. As he sets out on his journey, in Eyl, Somalia a different sort of captain named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) puts together a team of pirates to take another ship by force at the request of his own bosses and tribal leaders. Their paths cross on the open waters, but although initially able to keep the pirates at bay, Phillips’ ship is taken by the tenacious profiteers. So beings a chess match and series of skilled negotiations between Phillips and the pirates to end things peacefully and protect the wellbeing of both crews of men.
Easily the most intense effort from Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum) since United 93, Phillips might go down as his finest work. Using a steadier approach than he normally employs, and working from a screenplay courtesy of underrated scribe Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, The Hunger Games) that requires a slow building shell game rather than kinetic theatrics, Greengrass shows a remarkable and previously unseen skill for handling a story with numerous moving parts. He moves from the briefest of character introductions to show both units preparing. Once they are prepared, both crews respond efficiently and with level heads rather than diving headlong into hysterical theatrics or tough-guy posturing. For a filmmaker normally keen on fast cuts and an over reliance on shaky handheld camerawork, Greengrass has the sense to realize that the tension comes from the material itself. The only point when things become even the slightest bit action packed and stylistically kinetic is when the US Navy arrives on the scene and takes over negotiation with the pirates, who are finally able to isolate Phillips in a lifeboat to hold for larger ransom after their initial plans don’t pan out. Greengrass by that point has earned the right to escalate his story because it would logically make sense to do so.
The negotiations in play here are far more interesting than the somewhat heavier handed moments of obvious political posturing (of which there are two brief moments that grate somewhat). When the pirates first board the ship, it’s immediately apparent that Hanks is tapping into a kind of intensity that he hasn’t had to dip into since his first Oscar winning role in Philadelphia. That’s not to say that Hanks hasn’t given fine performances in that interim, but he’s never had to play someone like this since then: a man who has to remain strong in the face of extreme adversity in hopes of merely surviving. When the pirates show up in the area, Phillips handles things matter of factly. He doesn’t waver, but Hanks’ eyes show a great depth of fear and uncertainty under his calm demeanour.
Those same eyes are also the only hints that he has his own set of protocols he’s actively trying to remember while dealing with Muse and his crew. Phillips keeps Muse, played remarkably well by Adbi in his first ever big screen appearance, on his toes and talking long enough to gradually hang himself. The duel between the two men (and between the men and their crews) offers the real emotional payoff, especially in the final sequence where Hanks delivers a key dramatic moment so perfectly that it could very well become a career defining moment in a filmography already full of several high profile candidates for the position.
But while the movie finds its greatness through Hanks, the material itself resonates almost as much. It takes a lot more than just placing guns in people’s hands to make two opposing forces talking about and working through a tense situation seem cinematic. Greengrass and Ray do a perfect job to show the imperfections of such an endeavour. It’s a streamlined product without the gloss that makes everyone seem like they are in perfect control or that there’s an imminent twist in the plot on the way. It takes a story most already know the ending of and makes it unpredictable. That might be the biggest achievement overall.