The facts made global headlines back in 2009. Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, found the commercial ship boarded by Somali pirates, who held him for ransom on a lifeboat for five days until the Navy SEALs came to the rescue. Over and out. End of heroic story.
Not so fast, baby. Captain Phillips, directed with docudrama vigor by Paul Greengrass from a scrappy script Billy Ray adapted from Phillips' own memoir, is not content with standing just-the-facts duty. It wants more. It wants to dig, like Greengrass did in United 93 and Bloody Sunday, to find the heart beating under the kinetic surface.
Luckily, Greengrass has just the right actor to help him excavate this incredibly true story. Tom Hanks, at the top of his everyman game, starts by playing Phillips with deceptive simplicity. On his way to the job, starting from the port of Oman, Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) discuss their children and the difficulty of finding a job in today's market. But the prevalence of piracy hovers, no less troubling for going unspoken. Onboard, Phillips is no-nonsense with his crew, relying on routine drills to ensure safety measures. When the pirates, seen briefly on their turf taking orders from warlords, start following the Alabama in skiffs, the tension kicks in hard.
The Alabama is bigger and faster than the skiffs, but laws at the time required that merchant vessels be unarmed. Only hoses could be used to stop the pirates from boarding on ropes. Fat chance. These scenes, superbly shot by Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker), generate suspense that only intensifies when Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the pirates, shoves a gun in the captain's face. The extraordinary Abdi, a Mogadishu émigré living in Minneapolis, had never acted before. Yet he crushes his scenes with Hanks, his skinny bravado a force to reckon with. The captain he calls "Irish" offers $30,000, but Muse wants millions. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between the crew, in hiding on the ship, and the pirates, including Najee (Faysal Ahmed), Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) and the teenage Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman).
It might have all been another Hollywood-formula flick with American might taking on the alien other. But Greengrass gives Phillips and Muse the time, aboard a covered lifeboat, to discover shared beliefs and fears. "I have bosses," Muse explains of his demands. "We all have bosses," says Phillips, indicating a chain of command that transcends local politics and cultures.
Hanks, who has been tremendous throughout, hits a new career peak when the captain succumbs to post-traumatic stress. This is acting of the highest order in a movie that raises the bar on what a true-life action thriller can do.