Watch Tom Hanks, late in Paul Greengrass’ gripping thriller “Captain Phillips,” for perhaps the finest moments of acting in his distinguished career. As Richard Phillips, commanding officer of a container ship hijacked by Somali pirates, he undergoes an unthinkably terrifying ordeal; by its end he’s in shock, sobbing quietly from emotion long held in. Someone asks him his name; in a lesser movie, he might have squared his shoulders and replied, “Captain Phillips” as heroic music swelled. Instead, Hanks simply looks dazed, still trying to get his bearings in a world that turned into a nightmare and back again. “Rich,” he says simply; just a regular guy, not quite sure if he’s in a dream.
Based on a story many of us remember from the headlines in 2009, “Captain Phillips” recreates those terrible days at sea in Greengrass’ now-trademark fashion: utterly real, almost unbearably tense (even if you know how things ultimately turned out). The MV Maersk Alabama — loaded with commercial cargo, food aid and no weaponry — was invaded by four armed young men from Somalia, in the dangerous waters near the Horn of Africa. “Relax. No al-Qaida here,” says the pirate leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). “Just business. We want money.”
It’s not that simple, and while Phillips attempts to broker a deal that will keep his crew unharmed, things go awry: Soon he’s held hostage on a claustrophobic lifeboat by increasingly desperate pirates. (We’ve been shown the dire straits of their lives at home, which gives meaning if not forgiveness to their actions.) A long day, a long night … and we sit on the edges of our seats, rooting for Phillips, played by Hanks as a no-nonsense man of weary decency, to make his way home again.
Throughout, an array of details gives the film the level of documentarylike realness typical for Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Bloody Sunday”): the way the crew calls Phillips “Cap”; the lack of movie-style heroism (one crewman says he’s a union man and won’t fight pirates); the tricky hierarchy among the pirates, one of whom is very young indeed; the brief glimpse we get of Phillips’ home life at the start of the movie, in which we meet a man (and his wife, played by an underused Catherine Keener) accustomed to goodbyes. You won’t forget “Captain Phillips” in a hurry — nor will you forget Hanks, who in midcareer still finds ways to dazzle us anew.
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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org