Captain Phillips is an energetic, intense thriller that uses grim realism to heighten tension. Working from a script from Billy Ray, director Paul Greengrass focuses on both sides of the hijacking: we get the perspective of the shipmates and the pirates in equal measure (or something close to it). Sympathies between the characters shift, but not in ways we expect. For its relentless closing act, it’s as if Phillips and pirates clearly see the shittiness of their situation and look at its only logical conclusion with dread. Greengrass’ direction would be too much without Hanks presence or star power. This is his best performance in years.
We begin with two scenes where Phillips and pirates prepare. Back in New England, Richard Phillips (Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) discuss their children and the toll of being away from home for weeks on end. Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is a pirate, and while others mock his diminutive size, he knows he has the necessary ruthlessness for the job. Phillips commands instant respect on board, and it’s easy to see why: he keeps himself at a distance from his crew, and expects the same level of competence he possesses. He first notices the pirates during a piracy drill. The middle section is a bit like a chess game: both sides have a limited number of moves, and face off until there is one victor. The pirates make it on the ship, so Phillips cuts the power and hides the crew in the bowels of the engine.
This is when Captain Phillips bears some similarity to Home Alone, except with real fragility and higher stakes. The pirates search for the crew, and Phillips brilliantly improvises so the crew can leave traps or hide somewhere else. Greengrass slows down his patented shaky-cam so we can understand all the moves clearly, and his patience heightens the suspense. The crew eventually captures Muse, and this leads to Phillips’ important act of bravery: he agrees to leave with the pirates in a lifeboat in order to spare the crew. For what seems like ages, Greengrass focuses on the lifeboat and the subsequent military response. The Navy takes over Phillips’ ship, and after negotiations break down, SEAL snipers seem like the only answer. Phillips does not think he will survive.
It is strange when a movie shifts from goodness to greatness, and that sort of happens here. Captain Phillips is like a high-stakes war drama, but then it veers toward character study once Hanks/Greengrass get in the lifeboat. He humanizes the pirates, giving them distinct personalities (Adbi and the others are naturalistic and terrifying). We see how Phillips is a shrewd observer of human nature.: he does create internal drama, and instead errs on the side of human decency. The situation grows increasingly dire – there is no air circulation on the boat, so everyone can literally feel the heat – and Phillips feels he has few actions left.
Hanks’ performance is not a blatant attempt for an Oscar. He does not oversell Phillips’ situation, and instead acts like a smart man who struggles to preserve his dignity. At one point, he fights one of the pirates for emotional catharsis, not any strategic goal, and Hanks’ sense of indignant rage is startling. The performance reaches its climax in the moments immediately after Phillips’ rescue. This is acting at its most raw – I can only imagine what Ray’s matter-of-fact script said on the page – but Hanks disappears into a person who reacts with horror because he cannot fathom what has befallen him. Audience might be moved by the mere force of will such a performance requires, so Hanks’ work leaves an impression for days after leaving the theater.
Other critics compared Captain Phillips to A Hijacking, another realistic drama about Somali pirates and the seemingly insurmountable problems that follow. Both films bear a superficial resemblance to each other, but they have different ambitions: whereas A Hijacking is about the uncomfortable consequences of a protracted negotiation, Captain Phillips is a intense look at determined men who slowly realize their lives are out of their control. The SEAL snipers cast a shadow over what happens in that lifeboat, and Greengrass counts on the audience to worry about the full power of the Navy. There are no heroics when it’s all over, and instead we’re left with a man who is shown just how frail life can be. The power of the military is awesome, even if it’s utterly dehumanizing.