Captain Phillips: The Movie of the Moment

Director Paul Greengrass's piracy tale is riveting, even if (unlike me) you can ignore the current parallels.

Columbia Pictures

A tiny cohort of poorly organized insurgents, in a feat of terrible miscalculation, hijack an enterprise vastly larger than themselves, demanding a large and implausible ransom. Outnumbered and surrounded, they soon begin bickering with one another, their plans changing by the hour. Although repeatedly offered an out if they will simply release their hostage, they find themselves too deeply wedded to the self-destructive course they’ve charted. “I came too far,” their leader explains. “I can’t give up.”

Is Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips the most inadvertently resonant movie of the year? The film is, of course, based on the real-life hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009, not on the real-life hijacking of the federal government by a few dozen GOP House members last week. But as inexact—and to some, no doubt, unreasonable—as the comparison may be, I can’t be the only one who noticed the thematic similarities. The pirates are even led by a relatively sensible, conciliatory fellow (wonderfully played by first-time actor and Somali refugee Barkhad Abdi), who is cowed by his ever-more-intemperate compatriots …

But on to the film itself. It begins unpromisingly, with the titular Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) packing for his upcoming voyage and introducing us to his genuinely painful Boston accent. (Don’t worry: It recedes noticeably over time.) Phillips banters with his wife (a thoroughly wasted Catherine Keener) about their grown children, about the changing world (“Everything’s different, big wheels a’ turning”), and other comparably tedious bits of backstory/foreshadowing.

As soon as Phillips is aboard his immense cargo ship in Oman, however, preparing to embark around the horn of Africa to Mombasa, Greengrass’s film settles into a comfortable groove, spare and realistic. Preparations are completed (x metric tons of fresh water, y metric tons of fuel), anchors are weighed (“bow thrusters!” “dead slow ahead!”), and the vessel—and with it the film—gets underway.

Greengrass takes various liberties with the ensuing plot, with perhaps the greatest being his failure to note that Phillips took his craft within 240 miles of the Somali coast, despite a U.S. advisory to remain at least 600 miles offshore. In any case, pirates are encountered—their tiny craft dwarfed by their gargantuan prey—repelled with hoses, and then encountered again. This time a band of four Somalis manages to board the ship, armed with AK-47s and palpable desperation, and the Alabama crew—most of whom have taken refuge in the engine room—begin resisting the takeover of their ship by any means available.

What unfolds is an escalating game of cat and mouse, in which each side is defined more clearly by its weaknesses than its strengths. The crew of the Alabama have the numbers, but not the weapons. The pirates have the weapons, but no sense of the ship and—once it becomes clear to them that the crew does not intend to cooperate cheerfully with their $10 million ransom demand—no real idea of what to do next. Initially, their advantage seems to reside in their willingness to kill. But by the time two U.S. Navy warships arrive on the scene, it has become clear that their true advantage lies in their willingness to die. The final act of the film takes place (as followers of the news will recall), with the pirates and their last hostage, Phillips, crowded into a tiny, airless, covered lifeboat, surrounded by the overwhelming force of the U.S. military. The movie’s initial irony—of a ship the height of an office building and the length of one-and-a-half football fields being taken captive by a skiff with an outboard motor—has come full circle, and the world order reasserted itself.

Greengrass has directed gripping films both fantasy-based (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) and all-too-real (United 93). With Captain Phillips, he finds an extremely effective middle path, providing an edge-of-the-seat thriller that is also something more—but not so much more that it ceases to be a thriller. The director’s customary reliance on handheld camera-work (by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd), though overused in the early going, becomes increasing apt as the film accelerates into its nerve-jangling later acts. Greengrass’s underlying humanism, moreover, lends moral depth and sophistication to the proceedings. Yes, this is the tale of one man’s courage under adversity. But it is one in which the “villains” are as textured and relatable as the heroes.

Credit on this score must also be given to the large cast, which is unassuming in its excellence, and in particular to the movie’s two very disparate leads. Despite his iconic status, it has been a long time since Hanks has challenged himself as an actor to this degree (unless, I suppose, you count the dubious challenge he undertook with Cloud Atlas). And there is, as noted, a hint of Hanksian hamminess to his work at the outset of the movie. But it is pared away, slice by slice, until what emerges is an exceptional portrait of the simple nobility of doing one’s job, even when it no longer resembles the job one signed up for. (Hanks is so good in the role that it’s easy to forgive one dialed-up-to-11 scene at the conclusion that might as well have had “For Your Consideration” stamped on the print.)

At the other end of the spectrum, Barkhad Abdi is a revelation as Muse, the leader of the pirates. Twenty years ago, when Abdi was a boy, his family fled Somalia and ultimately made their way, thanks to a lottery visa, to Minneapolis. It was there that, on a whim, Abdi answered a 2009 open casting call for Greengrass’s film. The neophyte actor, now 28, offers a performance that is the perfect complement to Hanks: where the latter gradually strips his character down to its essential core, Abdi builds his up, from a stick-figure teen full of bravado to a genuinely sympathetic figure who has come to understand just how far in over his head he’s gotten. One hopes Hollywood can find further roles for Abdi in the future.

Captain Phillips is, in short, a terrific film, and I look forward to watching it again at a moment when I—and, yes, perhaps only I—won’t be distracted by echoes of the congressional news of the day. There’s one point, early in the movie, as the pirates are first bearing down on the Alabama, when the first mate (Michael Chernus) attempts to radio for help, but to no avail: “There’s no answer at the U.S. maritime emergency line!” My immediate thought was, god, I hope that’s not the kind of government function that’s affected by the shutdown. And I presume it’s not: two-thirds of the employees of the Transportation Department are still at their desks. But my rudimentary effort to reassure myself was unhelpful. When I called the press office of the U.S. Maritime Administration, I reached the following message: “We will be out of the office due to a lapse in funding. Please call back after news reports advise of a resumption of services by all federal agencies.”