"Captain Phillips" is a Tom Hanks movie. It is also a Paul Greengrass movie, and the cinematic tumult director Greengrass adroitly captures and sustains in the service of a narrative has a way of keeping his stars unmoored — in a good way — while trumping conventional Hollywood notions of a star vehicle.
Heroism exists in a Greengrass picture. But the British-born, documentary-trained director, best known for "United 93" and the second and third "Bourne" thrillers, is more interested in messy, lucky-to-be-alive, real-world heroism than in movie-world heroism. Greengrass sees the world as a complicated place; his preferred, jabbing editing rhythms and camera proximity ensure that audiences experience it the same way.
Capt. Richard Phillips is all business, and so is Hanks' portrayal.
In 2009 the Massachusetts-born, Vermont-based U.S. Merchant Marine commander of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, overseeing three different sets of union crews and union crew regulations, encountered four pirates who made their way to the U.S.-registered ship in a small craft off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. Phillips' crew of 20 had been undergoing a safety drill; then the radar signified the approach of an unidentified intruder. Because the container cargo ship was sailing in notorious pirate-infested waters, Phillips knew how much potential trouble was afoot. Written by Billy Ray, inspired by Phillips' own account of what happened next, the film tightens the screws for 134 minutes and relays how Phillips ended up in a lifeboat with his captors, on dwindling rations, waiting for the Navy SEALs to resolve a highly pressurized situation.
To honorably mixed results Greengrass and Ray do their best to allow the Somali characters and the actors (new to professional acting) playing them some room to establish Phillips' adversaries as human beings, albeit brutal and desperate ones. Barkhad Abdi, hired out of the Somali immigrant community of Minneapolis, plays the rifle-slinging leader, a fisherman by trade, forced into his second and treacherous line of work by economic and political crises (touched upon briefly in the early scenes, probably too briefly). The world's instability is connected by human threads, as is made clear in a prologue conversation on the way to the airport between Phillips and his justifiably worried wife (Catherine Keener, reduced to a one-scene player in the final edit). The pair talk about the uncertain universe their children, about to enter a difficult global workforce, are inheriting. But as the rest of the movie makes plain, there are difficult economic straits and then there are poverty-stricken-Somali-fishermen-turned-pirates economic straits.
We get to know members of the cargo ship crew only in fits and starts (Chris Mulkey, a valuable character actor, plays one). It's Hanks' show, though some may be surprised to see how little of the usual emotional hooks and beats intrude on the procedural at hand.
"Captain Phillips" is one of Greengrass' good films, if not one of his three or four terrific ones. There are times, in the screaming close-ups of the Somali actors, when you wish Greengrass and his excellent regular cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd (who also shot "The Hurt Locker") would back off a little. Going for clarity of line and context, the script stints on offhanded details of character. For better or worse, Greengrass' preferred method of fact-based storytelling sees the forest first and the trees second.
But at the risk of hyping its impact, when Hanks comes out the other side of his real-life character's blood-spattered experience, there's a scene as strong as any I've seen this year, and as strong as any either Greengrass or Hanks has managed in other sorts of movies. It's not a long scene (though one wonders if we're destined to sit through bits of it, over and over, come awards nomination season). It is, however, just about perfect in its wrenching emotion, expressed by an actor clearly up to the challenge of acting in a Paul Greengrass docudrama — which is to say, acting with as little capital-A Acting as possible.
"Captain Phillips": Three stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use)
Running time: 2:14