We all like to imagine that if we ever found ourselves in a crisis situation, we'd be able to stay cool and keep a level head. But even if we managed to do so, that doesn't necessarily mean that the tides would turn in our favor. The story of Captain Phillips is one of genuine courage, and it's executed with an attention to detail that holds us rapt with tension from the moment those first ominous blips appear on the radar.
Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew are carrying freight around the Horn of Africa when four Somali pirates forcefully take over their ship, the MV Maersk Alabama. While Phillips' team follow his orders to hide until they hear him give the safe word, the captain and a few essential crew members remain on the bridge as the heavily armed pirates make their way up to seize control of the ship. But the interlopers soon discover something that sends them into a furious rage: After effectively shutting down the ship, Phillips explains that the Maersk had malfunctioned when the crew pushed it too hard in an attempt to evade the attackers. In order to appease their leader, the ruthless Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Phillips offers them the $30,000 that's been locked in the ship safe. But that isn't enough, and Muse demands that Phillips help him search every corner of the ship to root out the terrified crew. When that plan fails, the pirates agree to take the cash from the safe and flee in the Maersk's lifeboat. At the last minute, however, they kidnap Phillips in the hope of supplementing their take with a sizable ransom -- a decision that leads to a tense standoff with the U.S. Navy, who would sooner see the lifeboat sunk with Phillips inside than allow it to reach Somalia.
Adapted by screenwriter Billy Ray (State of Play, The Hunger Games) from Phillips' book, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, Paul Greengrass' film presents us with two distinct and disparate worlds in the opening scenes, and shows us just how wrong things can go when those worlds collide. The first time we see Phillips, he's leaving his home in Vermont and driving to the airport with his wife. As they navigate the freeway, the tension in the car is palpable: It's obvious this is a routine they've grown used to but still makes them deeply uneasy, and their vocal concern for their children paints them as practical but loving. Meanwhile, in Eyl, Somalia, Muse is jolted awake in his dirt-floored hut as a crew of trigger-happy militants round up the locals at gunpoint and force them out to sea in search of plunder.
The contrast is jarring, though it's only a hint of the horror to come; by the time Muse and his three men manage to board the Maersk, we've seen just how brutal the skinny pirate can be when forced into a corner, and have little doubt that he's willing to kill in order to get what he wants. It's a relentlessly efficient setup for a strained standoff that we know could erupt into violence at any given moment, and the urgency only grows more severe when Phillips is trapped in a lifeboat with his abductors as the Navy race to end the stalemate.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Captain Phillips (besides Abdi's unexpectedly sympathetic performance) is the effectiveness of Greengrass' direction. In the past, Greengrass has been accused of incoherency -- in fight scenes, he has a penchant for getting so close to the action that the viewer loses perspective. Yet here, in tighter, more confined settings, that approach results in an intimacy that genuinely draws us into the characters and their plight. Perhaps it helps that there are precious few scenes of hand-to-hand combat in Captain Phillips (most of the violence comes in quick, brutal bursts), but in this way the director manages to turn what was previously perceived as his Achilles' heel into his greatest asset.
Speaking of assets, the director also coaxes a phenomenal performance out of the perennially likable Hanks. A devoted family man who runs a tight ship at sea, Captain Phillips is acutely aware of the dangers of his latest route, and Hanks plays the character with the perfect balance of prudence and compassion -- the latter of which is beautifully evidenced in his fatherly concern for one of the injured pirates, a young man who's about the same age as one of Phillips' children. Likewise, Abdi portrays Muse as a man driven to desperation by circumstance, yet still possessing a humanistic streak that at least one of his fellow hijackers appears to have lost. The two roles contrast with one another harmoniously, giving each a sense of genuine depth that enhances the story's inherent drama. Still, it's Hanks who steals the entire show in his stunning final scene, perhaps the strongest of its kind and one that's bound to haunt viewers long after the film has ended; that moment makes Captain Phillips not just an exceptional tale of grace under pressure, but an actively engaging experience as well.