This is an easy story to present as compelling. It involves a massive scale via a gargantuan ocean vessel, heroics, guns and a rather straight-forward narrative for a true story; the ship tries to escape, it gets boarded and then a rescue mission is orchestrated. The decision by Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), whom adapted the book by Stephan Talty and Phillips, to dig that extra layer is what makes this movie stellar. As in United 93, Greengrass isn’t interested in conjuring a picture where heinous, disturbed men commit evil deeds to the innocent.
Captain Phillips presents two men, captains in their own way, from different backgrounds whose paths just happen to smack into the others. First off is Hanks as Richard Phillips, a Vermont native with a surly streak. Phillips worries about his kid’s work ethic and is prone to reminding his shipmates – most of which he has never met – that a fifteen minute break is just indeed that. He also doesn’t waste time with his decisions. Phillips learns of pirates roaming the general area his ship’s heading and dutifully ensures that those around him know what to do.
A good plan since Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is on his way. Muse is from a small village, where the way of life is presented as rough and dependant on the whims of dictatorial figure barking out his needs and demands. Muse knows his options are, at best, limited, and sees the morally questionable elements of the plan to hijack a cargo ship as merely part of the gig.
Greengrass and company presents this as matter of fact, along with the tension. Life is rough for each of these men and their points of action give them certain benefits and troubles. The storming of the ship by Muse and his fellow pirates is gripping, presented plainly and effectively. We get a sense of how large Phillips’ boat is compared to Muse’s and, vitally, the gap between their technologies. Phillips can call up the United Kingdom while deep in the trenches of the Indian Ocean; Muse has a walky-talky he shouts into hoping to catch the ear of his comrades miles away. Phillips demands his thundering engines to go faster and faster, tons of steel working at his call; Muse’s side pulls on a motorboat cord. Then the military arrives.
The whole digs deep into one’s psyche. Working once more with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Greengrass stages his sequences in a manner that defines the sense of space. On Muse’s boat, we feel the rush of wind and spray of the water as they slowly make their way through the cargo ship’s defenses. Later, the tight, humid confines of a 28-foot lifeboat hover over the mounting drama. If the music occasionally overplays its hand in the last act, it is a rare misstep in an otherwise masterful work.
Hanks and Abdi match watch they’re given at each turn. Hanks underplays a role that could swiftly collapse into hollers. As a stern leader in the opening half, Hanks presents Phillips as a confident, intelligent officer that understands his circumstances require a particular tact. Abdi too goes subtle, making his outbursts of fear and displeasure vividly potent. As his plans stir and shake, Abdi lets Muse flutter between undaunted and overwhelmed, hopefully the start of a larger career.
Captain Phillips opens wide all across Seattle tomorrow.