Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Paul Greengrass is that his films are consistently thrilling. It doesn't matter whether it's the fictional Bourne series or the real-life tragedies of United 93 and Bloody Sunday, he can be counted on to deliver a gripping, distressingly authentic experience. After Green Zone was something of a bumpy patch, Greengrass is back with the nerve-racking, engrossing hostage thriller Captain Phillips. Based on the real-life 2009 hijacking ordeal that thrust Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) into the global spotlight, the emotional stakes are high and utterly absorbing...it just may not be for who everyone wants to root for.
Hanks stars as Phillips, a Massachusetts everyman whose career on the high seas keeps him away from his wife (Catherine Keener) more than he'd like. That combined with the obvious dangers of pirate attack weigh on his mind as he gears up for another voyage on the massive Maersk Alabama, a supply vessel providing goods and rations to a number of poor countries. In typical Greengrass fashion, these quiet moments are presented in matter-of-fact fashion, a calm before the incoming storm. Phillips knows the risks involved with trekking around the dangerous Somali Gulf of Aden, and will run his capable crew through security drills before launch, after an ominous warning about heavy pirate activity in the area.
Despite the title, there's a balanced approach taken overall with just as much focus directed towards the plight of the hijackers. A parallel story unfolds as heavily-armed Somali crime bosses roll up on a poor fishing village and demand payment. With little to offer other than their lives, the clearly-starving, desperate men led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) survive by leading dangerous missions on their shoddy skiffs held together by spit and bailing wire, and ransacking merchant vessels for the ransom money. These are hopeless people, fighting for the job like hungry wolves over the final shreds of meat. Failure is not an option because to fail is to die.
The storylines converge as the fragile pirate boats make their charge for the hulking Alabama, and Phillips uses his wit to outsmart the attackers. But all of his tricks don't change things in the end, and once Muse and his small but ferocious team board, an intense battle of wills unfolds that will have you on the edge of the seat. It’s no secret how this was all brought to a swift conclusion, but those events on the ship are still a mystery to most and Greengrass tenaciously chronicles them with his usual intensity. The tension in the air is thick enough to cut with a knife as the pirates scour the vessel for Phillips' missing crew, while the Captain is put through an emotional crash course of fear and terror. The balance of power constantly shifting, a delicate respect forms between Phillips and Muse. This is all supposed to be business, and they are two men in the business of staying alive, which is about as personal as it gets.
Phillips' story is a little underdeveloped, lacking the complexity and aggression of his Somali captors. The script by Billy Ray presents a layered, complicated backstory that presents them as more than just treasure-seeking villains. It's strongly suggested that their fishing industry has been decimated by the U.S. and other nations, leading to the poverty they wish to escape. Emaciated and chewing on khat root to dull the pangs of hunger, we're left to perceive them as wild-eyed animals backed into a corner. Thankfully, Greengrass has a better handle on political commentary than he had on the heavy-handed Green Zone.
You'll be hearing the name Barkhad Abdi a lot in the coming weeks, perhaps even more than Hanks. As Muse, he delivers an electric, incredibly authentic performance that dominates every scene and could have him a dark horse Best Supporting Actor candidate. His presence never fades even as Muse's power becomes muted during the long stand-off. Hanks delivers a steady and superb performance as Phillips, who for the bulk of the story maintains a sense of internal control regardless of the dire circumstances. His eyes reflect the true terror and panic tearing at him on the inside, only bubbling up to the surface in a dramatic primal howl of anguish after the torturous ordeal has concluded.
The cinematography carries all of the kinetic handheld trademarks we've come to expect from Greengrass, but it's considerably less harried as some of his prior films. That probably has to do with the limited locales and claustrophobic atmosphere of the situation, which calls for more attention to body language and expression. The wind is let out of the film's sails a little bit by the arrival of the Navy and a SEAL unit (led by Pacific Rim's Max Martini) who don't really care if the situation ends up messy as long as it avoids a political scandal. The bloody, abrupt, and very public way the military handled the situation in reality causes the film to end a mostly unsatisfying way, lacking the nuance that had been so carefully built up until then.
Comparing two similar films with different agendas is usually a fool's errand, but it's hard not to measure Captain Phillips by the extraordinarily high standard set by Dutch thriller, A Hijacking. The situations depicted are identical, and told in similar styles with an equal measure of passion, but Greengrass keeps a narrower focus whereas A Hijacking encompasses a much wider berth, folding in corporate ineptitude (imagine your boss negotiating your release) and personal tragedies. Captain Phillips could have presented a fuller, richer picture, but it's still a heart-rending, intimate look at desperate men forced into a drastic situation beyond their control.