There’s a Mark Twain saying, “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.” By that definition, Richard Phillips, the character played by Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips,” is courage defined.
Looking down the barrels of AK-47s wielded by four ragtag Somali pirates, he keeps his head and thinks intently how he can save himself and the members of his crew of the container ship Maersk Alabama from A) being taken hostage or B) killed.
In what ranks as one of Hanks’ finest performances ever, you can sense the fear Phillips is feeling — it’s there in his eyes throughout his ordeal — but you also can see him suppressing it, then controlling it and using it as a tool to focus his mind on ways to outwit his captors.
Hanks is the perfect choice for this role. His specialty is everyman characters, not Rambos, and his Phillips is a careful, working-stiff kind of a guy. Nothing special, in other words, until he’s placed in extraordinary circumstances. And then, carefully and in a workmanlike fashion, he handles the ever-changing dynamics of his perilous situation in ways that make him a hero.
Holding his own with Hanks in terms of acting excellence is Barkhad Abdi, a young Somali national living in Minneapolis who had never acted before he was cast in “Captain Phillips.” He does remarkably nuanced work as a man motivated by poverty to turn to piracy. The picture doesn’t excuse his criminality but offers insights how the chaotic realities of life in the broken society that is Somalia make piracy seem like good business, where significant risks can produce multimillion-dollar payoffs.
Directed by Paul Greengrass in the taut, propulsive style of such pictures as his “United 93,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Captain Phillips” is based on the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The incident drew worldwide headlines and required the intervention of the U.S. Navy and a team of SEALs marksmen to resolve. Greengrass, working from a script by Billy Ray, based on Phillips’ book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea,” shot the picture on an actual containership (though not the Alabama) and had exceptional cooperation from the Navy, which provided three warships for the filming of certain scenes.
The level of verisimilitude in the picture is therefore very impressive. And the level of tension Greengrass sustains throughout is incredible.
The tension builds organically, inexorably, through the boarding by the pirates from small boats, through their search for hiding crewmen as Phillips tries to slow and distract them and until they are persuaded to depart the powered-down, dead-in-the-water container ship in the Maersk’s small enclosed lifeboat with Phillips as their hostage. The scenes filmed in that tiny, pitching confined space in which the panicked hijackers are melting down psychologically are almost unbearably intense.
In all respects, “Captain Phillips” is a terrific achievement.
* * * * *
Cast: Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi
Director: Paul Greengrass
Running Time: 2:12
Rating: PG-13; sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, substance abuse.