Get on board 'Captain Phillips'
"CAPTAIN Phillips," a fact-based account of a pirate raid on a U.S. freighter, surprises us early on with a strangely stirring image.
It's a shot of a band of Somalians on an ancient outboard skiff, plowing crazily through the waves toward a cargo ship many times as large, a vessel they mean to board.
There's a "Charge of the Light Brigade" tinge to it - yes, the pirates are armed mercenaries, dangerous and up to no good, but the mismatch is so gargantuan, the underdog so obvious, that it's hard not to feel some sympathy for their lunatic advance.
On board the giant ship, the captain (Tom Hanks, in top form) watches the approaching radar blips nervously. He's in no position to root for the underdog.
And he knows that's not Jack Sparrow on board the approaching craft. These pirates are desperados armed with AK47s. They have guns; he does not. They also have a mother ship floating nearby, full of more armed men.
A few brazen and mobile hunters, he knows, could easily capture his woolly mammoth of a ship, so he commences a series of evasive maneuvers - throwing up wake to swamp the smaller boat, turning hoses on the pirate craft.
In terms of its physics, "Phillips" is in a way the opposite of "Gravity," whose action elements were all about the rushing, meteoric motion of outer space. "Phillips" makes our knuckles go white at the slow turns of the mighty ship, whose size turns out to be a mixed blessing.
And a metaphor for the thematic implications of the attack - Phillips' ship as a huge monument to modern prosperous commerce, the Somali boat a sort of creepy omen, the restive emblem of a failed state that the West ignores at its peril.
The scale of the movie brings out the best in director Paul Greengrass, who's forced to set aside, for a bit, his addiction to shaky cam close-ups and work on a bigger canvas.
His famous, fair-to-all-sides POV is also on full display as he toggles back and forth from Phillips to Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirate "captain." We see Phillips, leaving his modest Vermont home for the airport. Muse, in his dusty Somali village, rounds up a motley crew of desperate volunteers.
Phillips worries to his wife (Catherine Keener) about their kids and a hypercompetitive world of diminished opportunity, but he doesn't know the half of it. In lawless, hopeless, impoverished, clan-ruled Somalia, and at sea, Muse must literally fight for the privilege of leading a probable suicide mission.
And yet, when Phillips loses his vessel and becomes hostage to Muse, we see that the two captains understand each other as men-in-charge, and Philips - Hanks reminds us that he's so good at this kind of subtle, intuitive performance - uses this connection to game his situation when the action moves to the Alabama's lifeboat and becomes a claustrophobic hostage drama. By now, a couple of Navy frigates and a SEAL team are involved, and you know its curtains for the Somalis. They include Muse's trigger-happy enforcer, who wants to kill Phillips regardless, but also the scared kid who just wants to go home.
When the bullets finally fly (the movie runs a little long), the movie is on the other side of "victory" or even tragedy. It's with Phillips, gasping at the grim calculus of a situation as inevitable as it is futile. As long as boats full of bounty chug past the bereft Somalis, they will always reach out for it, and they will always be crushed.
Muse, trying to maintain control, keeps saying: "Everything is going to be OK."
You know he doesn't believe it, and neither do we.