It wasn’t that long ago and we remember how it turned out. So there’s no way that “Captain Phillips,” the movie about the 2009 pirate attack on the M.V. Maersk Alabama, should be as surprising and entertaining a sea tale as it is.
What happened was more heroic than you’d expect. The resistance of the crew, the resilience and craftiness of the pirates and the guile, level-headedness and bravery of the title character are so Hollywood that you half expect Bruce Willis heroics and an exchange of pithy trash-talk catch-phrases.
But this thrilling retelling was directed by Paul (“United 93”) Greengrass, an unfussy director with a talent for tension. And it was adapted from the real Capt. Richard Phillips’ book by Billy (“Breach”/ “Shattered Glass”) Ray.
They’ve cooked up an engrossing, sober-minded, fact-centered account, telling the story from parallel points of view of the two hard-case captains here. There’s Phillips, a veteran no-nonsense sailor, and a Somali pirate named Muse. Phillips has his job, his pushy bosses, his ways of dealing with an attack “by the book.” But so does Muse, a smart thug who has to answer to a murderous warlord if he doesn’t seize a ship and ransom it and its crew.
“No al-Qaida here,” Muse grins, pointing his battered AK-47 at Phillips. “Just business.”
Tom Hanks has built his career on a mastering the details that signal “competence” in any character, and he disappears into Capt. Phillips. Even in the informality of a cargo ship hauling relief supplies up and down the African coast, his captain is all business, demanding professionalism from the crew he’s just met.
Barkhad Abdi is Muse, a gaunt figure with expressive eyes who lets us see the wheels turning, just as Hanks does. Their performances never let us forget, as entertaining as their cat-and-mouse game becomes, that these men knew life and death were the stakes.
Greengrass and Ray sketch in the shore side life of both men — Phillips splitting his time between sailing assignments and a Vermont home with his wife (Catherine Keener) and kids, Muse, sleeping one off between hijackings in a shoreside fishing village whose fishing dried up thanks to the Asian factory trawlers that vacuumed up Somalia’s coast.
Then comes the nerve-wracking chase. It starts with radar blips, a “security drill” that is not a drill.
Music makes its first appearance beneath the action as the big bulk carrier turns to and fro, blasts geysers of water off all sides to repel boarders, and the pirates bicker as they crash through the huge ship’s wake in a battered skiff with a balky boat motor.
Then the boarding, a crew in hiding and the gamesmanship that kicks in even as one captain fears for his life and the other, wild-eyed on the mild narcotic khat, fears failure. Before you know it, the Navy’s involved and things turn even messier.
Last summer’s Danish film “A Hijacking” did a great job of breaking down what happens when a ship is taken by a captain and crew ill-prepared to resist. Hanks is terrific at showing the ways this captain had the presence of mind to tip his crew to his every move, to counter the badly-outnumbered pirates, keeping his head even as he lied, time and again.
Greengrass fills his cast with so many unemotional, professional military folks that “Captain Phillips” can seem like a recruiting ad for Navy SEAL Team 6. There’s a sense of people knowing what they’re doing, with Max Martini, as the SEAL negotiator, embodying the physique and the calm, firm jock baritone of a soldier who has a procedure for how this will go down and the confidence to stick to that plan.
Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali and Barkhad Abdirahman are utterly convincing as hardened pirates, wide-eyed with macho rage and just stoned enough to have the courage to take on this deadly work. Abdi plays no lip-smacking villain or doltish thug, but he lets us see Muse smirk as he tells Phillips “Look at me. I’M the captain now.”
And Hanks lets himself get so deep into this ordeal that you believe the beatings, the horrific stress, the numb terror of that indentation on his forehead where the pistol barrel was pressed.
The performances and Greengrass’ way with action immerse us and make “Captain Phillips” a tight, taut, edge-of-your-seat thriller even if you remember the ending. With a film well over two hours long, that’s high praise indeed.