“Captain Phillips” is a pulsating account of the kidnapping of the captain of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates directed by Paul Greengrass who directed “United 93,” which was also based on a true story. With his kinetic style, Greengrass could probably make the opening of a cereal box exciting, so it was almost a no-brainer that he could successfully handle a story like this, which features not only logistical challenges but the sort of volatile political backdrop he has favored in most of his work.
Still, for a story that pits locals versus Americans in the Middle East and boasts a climax that involves Navy SEALs, U.S. choppers and warships, the screenplay by Billy Ray essentially makes no mention of religion, al-Qaida or the war on terror, concentrating on the more essential reality of impoverished young men, some of them fishermen, pushed to extreme measures by the big bucks bandit bosses offer for Western hostages, for whom they can demand millions. It’s “just business,” as so many criminals throughout history have said.
And so it is for Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) who bids his wife (Catherine Keener) adieu in Vermont in late March 2009 to take an enormous container ship from southern Oman down along the coast of Somalia and then to Kenya. Unusual for a vessel in these waters, it’s an American ship, the Maersk Alabama out of Norfolk, manned by a U.S. crew. Phillips is curt with his crew members and, given the rash of pirate attacks of late, extremely attentive to security matters. He doesn’t say it in too many words, but it’s clear Phillips just wants to get this job done as quickly as possible, collect his check and go home.
Captain Phillips notices two boats bearing down on him just as he’s conducting an attack preparation drill. As the Alabama moves very slowly and has limited maneuverability, there’s not much the crew can do but shift course and fire big water hoses at the pirates. One boat turns back, but the other perseveres, enabling four pirates to climb aboard using a ladder they hook to the ship’s side.
Thus ensues a cat-and-mouse game in which the crew hides in the engine room while Phillips tries to stall for time. As two of the pirates are injured and a big U.S. Navy vessel is moving in, the pirates shortly take off with their most valuable asset, Phillips, in an orange lifeboat in which they hope to reach the Somali coast. As tempers fray and conditions become suffocating in this little shell of a craft, the American military goes into a full-court press, dispatching more boats as well as Navy SEALs to the scene to try to rescue Phillips.
Since this military operation was big news in April 2009, the outcome is no surprise. But more powerful even than that is Hanks’ stunned response to the attack and his emotional aftermath. Hysteria, delayed reaction, wordless silence - these have been seen many times in dramatized accounts of traumatic events. But Hanks has come up with something different, a rendering of a state of shock quite unique in which his altered condition stands in extreme contrast to the routine questions and reassurances of the attending nurse. It’s an extraordinary scene, one for which there is little precedent. This scene alone could earn Hanks his third Academy Award.
See this film in the theater, do not wait for DVD. You will thank me.