'You'd think these trips would get easier, but it's the opposite," Andrea Phillips, a nurse, says to her husband, Richard, as they navigate a Vermont highway one morning, heading for the airport. It's a drive they've made often over the years - this time to put him on a flight to Oman, where he will take charge of a giant container ship.
But this trip - in spring 2009, on the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, bound for Mombasa, Kenya - will go down as the uneasiest in the veteran mariner's career.
Captain Phillips, based on the real-life story of the Alabama's hijacking by Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea, is an unnerving reenactment, realized with a daunting combination of filmmaking craft and actors' commitment. Yes, it's an "entertainment" - our Hollywood Everyman, Tom Hanks, projecting quiet authority and a Yankee twang, plays the good captain, who is taken by some very bad men. (Catherine Keener is his wife in that opening commuting sequence.)
But in a season of movies crammed with impossible suspense - Gravity, the forthcoming All Is Lost (the opening-night selection of the Philadelphia Film Festival) - Captain Phillips is, likewise, more than just an excuse to get our hearts pumping, our guts churning in collective dread. This is a story about human beings put to the test - facing profound challenges, and their own fears, doubts, inadequacies. We watch these films and wonder about ourselves, about who we are, why we are here, what we would do.
Captain Phillips has been adapted from the merchant seaman's memoir, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. There have been mutinous rumblings from some of his crew, who claim, now that the movie is out there, that Phillips put them and the ship at unnecessary risk, and that this account of heroism is more than a little bit apocryphal. But that's the nature of moviedom's "based on a true story" tag, isn't it? This isn't a documentary. (And even then . . .)
The script is by Billy Ray, who wrote (and directed) the slow-burning, real-life spy drama Breach. And Paul Greengrass, who demonstrated formidable action skills with the first and second Matt Damon Bourne sequels, was in the director's chair - although it's hard to imagine he spent much time actually seated there as he steered his cast down gangways, through galleys, and into pitch-black engine rooms. Like Greengrass' United 93, the grim account of the doomed 9/11 flight, Captain Phillips uses its narrow confines to ratchet up the tension, the sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped.
Also like United 93, it presents a group of actors who must bring conviction to roles that can easily become stereotypes and that are not so easily understood. The four armed Somalis who chase down the massive cargo ship in a motor launch were not driven by radical religious dogma, but by the lure of cash bounties. Still, even as Muse (Barkhad Abdi), their wiry, watchful leader, tells "Irish" - his nickname for the hostage, Phillips - that everything will be OK, we know things will be anything but.
The Alabama's shipmates had been running practice drills because of reports of piracy in the Somali Basin, but they were ill-prepared for the men who stormed the bridge with machine guns blazing. Abdi brings a formidable menace to his role, but also a lot of emotional nuance.
At a certain point, as the title of Phillips' book suggests, the U.S. Navy shows up. This is no vintage B-movie Western rescue, however, where the cavalry gallops in with a triumphant bugle call, sending the villains scattering. The arrival of several Navy vessels and a team of SEALS guarantees only that the stakes for the Somali pirates have been raised. U.S. citizens as hostages - that's a prize worth millions, and Muse and his cadre have no choice at this point, they have nothing to lose.
Gambits are tried, escapes attempted. Strategies - on Phillips' and his crew's side, and on their captors' - backfire. But one thing is certain as this powerful drama plays out: Captain Phillips is harrowing, inspiring, a must-see piece of moviemaking.
Captain Phillips **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Paul Greengrass. With Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, David Warshofsky, and Catherine Keener. Distributed by Sony Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 14 mins.
Parent’s guide: PG-13 (violence, intense action, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters