A Somali pirate has one way of seeing the capture of an American cargo ship for ransom: "It's taxes," he says. "You come to our waters, you've got to pay." It's certainly not an assessment the captain of the seized ship would agree with, but the circumstances force him into the role of hero anyway.
"Captain Phillips" is the story of Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), based on the real-life American captain whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by a small band of Somali pirates off the coast of Africa in 2009. Hanks shines in the role, but the film gives him a proper adversary, a skinny Somali named Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who also insists on being called captain once he has taken over the ship.
"It's just business," Muse says over and over. "Everything is going to be alright." Of course, it's hard to believe him, when he and his gang are waving around machine guns and asking for $10 million in ransom.
The film begins with an introduction to Phillips' home life --a quiet Vermont suburb where he and his wife (Catherine Keener) worry their son is skipping class -- and to Muse's -- a desperate desert by the beach, where the only occupations are fishing and pirating. Once the story takes us out to sea, Phillips' crew lackadaisically goes through the motions of a piracy drill the captain has ordered. Meanwhile, the Somalis race towards the boat as if their lives depends on it. Because, in some ways, they do. Phillips and his crew are pudgy, a little scruffy around the edges. Muse and his crew (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali) are skin and bones, their faces craven by poverty.
Director Paul Greengrass plays up the enormity of the Maersk Alabama, as if to highlight the gall the gang of marauders must have to approach it in their flimsy wooden skiff. But facing the demands of the warlords back home, they exhibit a near diabolical determination to extract their payoff.
Once the hijacking gets underway, Phillips shows an impressive display of improvisation. But the pirates' tactics are equally as impressive, not in their cleverness (Phillips outshines them there) but in their sheer grit. Neither side is truly prepared for the showdown, and the situation grows more desperate for both the pirates and Phillips.
Phillips' steadfastness never truly slips, while the pirates begin to turn on each other, their perfect plan disintegrating before their eyes. The newspapers may have already spoiled the final ending, but that doesn't make the ensuing chaos any less intense.
"Captain Phillips" is a well-executed ripped-from-the-headlines thriller. Greengrass directs it with a "Bourne"-like velocity that makes the two-plus hours fly by, and everyone gives top-notch performances. It does not reach for the cultural significance of, say, "Zero Dark Thirty," nor does it really try.
Nevertheless the clash of two worlds at sea -- the First and the Third -- shouldn't be overlooked. Phillips often locks eyes with Muse, in a captain-to-captain stare-off that radiates understanding, if not respect. Maybe it's all an act to get Muse to trust Phillips, or maybe the American actually empathizes with his rival captain, who has his own set of concerns and responsibilities. But this doesn't impair Phillips' final cathartic release at the end of the five-day crisis. It's here that Phillips shows himself to be not just a hero, but a human.