Captain Phillips Review: A harrowing true story is one of the year’s best

When true stories like the one behind Captain Phillips happen, you can imagine Hollywood executives licking their lips in anticipation. “Yes,” they say, “this will make a great movie in a few years.” Not all “based on true events” films are created equal, but in the case of Captain Phillips, they’d be right.

It seems there are several news stories every year that capture our collective imagination like nothing else. In 2009, the harrowing story of the large American freight ship, the Maersk Alabama, being captured and taken hostage by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa, had people the world over glued to their television sets and news feeds. At the center of it all was the Alabama’s captain, Rich Phillips, an ordinary man forced into extraordinary circumstances.

The primary attraction to true-life underdog stories is, I believe, the fact that so many things could go wrong, and the miracle of this story is that all of those little things went right, or at least as right as could be expected under the circumstances. One wrong look, one calculated attempt at reconciliation too many, and you face a bullet to the brain.

Rich Phillips is a New England shipping captain who is tasked with captaining a large load of food and other relief supplies around the Horn of Africa. He and his crew know of the dangerous Somali pirates said to patrol these seas. They are eventually boarded by a small band of armed pirates as Captain Phillips is taken for ransom in a small lifeboat. The Navy attempts to resolve the situation peacefully as the world watches on.

The story is grade-A cinematic material, but portraying it compellingly on screen seems like a nigh-impossible task. After all, the story takes place on the ocean, in drab shipping containers and claustrophobic fishing boats. Enter director Paul Greengrass, perhaps the finest working director when it comes to filming true stories documentary style, less as movies than as actual lived experience. His United 93, about the plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 that ended up in crashing in a Pennsylvania field, proved so unbearably intense it caused people to walk out of the theater, and The Bourne Ultimatum is one of the more realistic action movies of recent years.

Such style works wonders here. Greengrass shoots everything in tight close-ups, concentrating on the furtive glance and the beads of sweat. Greengrass’ camera is restless, as it bobs, weaves and pans across nearly every shot. Those who were nauseated by Greengrass’ “shaky-cam” style in Ultimatum will not find any relief here, but it seems to me a perfect marriage of style and substance. The constant movement replicates the feeling of being on open waters, where even small conversations contains an added element of intensity. It helps the sometimes-drab surroundings come alive.

At two hours, the film feels substantial, not the least because it takes a good while for the hijacking to actually occur. In 2009, some wondered how a large shipping crew could allow itself to be hijacked by four pirates, but the film shows that they didn’t lie down quietly. The crew pulled out all the stops to prevent a boarding and, when it did occur, resulted to clever diversionary tactics and even a bit of guerilla warfare (barefoot pirate plus broken glass equals not a pretty sight).

At the center of it all is, naturally, Captain Phillips himself, played fearlessly by Tom Hanks. Here, Hanks gives one of the best performances of his career, displaying tremendous grace under overwhelming pressure. Hanks plays Phillips as a peaceful man, one who can’t bear the thought of violence even against his increasingly violent captors. Like Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, he is just trying to get home in one piece. The last 20 minutes of the film in particular will almost surely net Hanks a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

Greengrass and company wisely casted native Somali non-actors to play the pirates, and their performances and appearances are dead-on. There’s the small-but-fearless leader, Muse, and his rogue, violent right-hand man; the driver; and the teenage pirate who’s in way over his head. The actors, led by a chilling Barkhad Abdi as Muse, portray the pirates not as evil men but those simply doing what they need to survive. They, with the help of Billy Ray’s screenplay, give the pirates a humanity and even a sympathy that a safer Hollywood blockbuster would have glossed over.

It is in this humanity that Captain Phillips asserts itself as one of the year’s best films. Nobody wants anyone to die, not the pirates, nor the navy, nor Captain Phillips himself. When the Navy arrives, he pleads with the pirates to let him go not so much because he fears for his own life, but because he fears for theirs. The ending, which, as we all know, ends in spectacular violence, does not strike me as a particularly happy one. Everyone may be relieved that the lengthy ordeal is finally over, but Rich Phillips is not smiling as he is escorted out of the lifeboat and toward a reunion with his family. We get the sinking feeling he may not smile again anytime soon.