Director Paul Greengrass began his career as a journalist and documentary filmmaker before turning to narrative cinema, so it's no surprise that many of his films are based on actual events, including Bloody Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006). Captain Phillips chronicles and dramatizes the seizing by Somali pirates of the Maersk Alabama, an American-registered container ship, in April 2009. After a successful rescue by the US Navy, the captain of that ship, Richard Phillips, became a minor celebrity and an image of American courage under fire, and this film is based on A Captain's Duty, Phillips's detailed account of his ordeal.
The film bears many similarities to the excellent Danish picture A Hijacking, one of my favorite films from 2012. But the distinctive differneces in presentation and perspective distinguish the two movies and prompt me to recommend seeing them both rather than endorsing one over the other. Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking is a cerebral drama that uses a fictional narrative to make a statement about worldwide capitalism. Greengrass’s movie is a visceral action thriller that uses its veracity to heighten the survival tale of its real-life protagonist. And while A Hichjacking tells its story exclusively from the perspectives of the main hostage on the hijacked ship and the president of the shipping company back in Copenhagen, Captain Phillips presents the viewpoints of both the titular character (Tom Hanks) and the pirates' de facto leader (newcomer Barkhad Abdi). The restricted perspective of A Hijacking serves that film well. The choice to not even subtitle the pirates' dialogue makes a subtle but clear point about how much of a voice the Somalis have in international capitalism. The more expancive Captain Phillips is a Hollywood action picture more concerned with creating a “you are there” feeling than making any subtextural commentary, yet Greengrass’ movie is no mere thrill ride.
Hanks, who for the past ten years has seemed adrift in a series of mediocre films, is perfectly cast as the ship captain, but the most exciting screen presence in the film is Abdi, whose sheer dynamism commands our attention in much the same way his character takes authority over both his fellow raiders and their captives. The four pirates are unquestionably the villains of the film, but they're much more than generic, foreign bad-guys, and each character conveys a range of thoughts and emotions that equals and even surpasses those of the American crew. Watching these rail-thin men in their tiny boat chasing down and boarding the massive Maersk Alabama is thrilling, and we understand that they are both very brave and very desperate. If they were Americans pursuing a cause we deemed just, we would call their actions heroic. The film, to its credit, manages to convey all this shading without being heavy-handed. Screenwriter Billy Ray (Flightplan, Breach, The Hunger Games) certainly deserves credit for keeping the proceedings free from too much overt political statement. Instead, Captain Phillips is content to lay out the events as they occurred and let the story make its points, rather than forcing the characters to explain things to us in long speeches.
At its core, Captain Phillips is about the capture of one man, and as a result the film’s emotional stakes feel lower than those of Bloody Sunday or United 93, but the casting and direction are so good that the impact is equally strong. Greengrass shoots all his films, including the last two Jason Bourne movies, in a frantic and shaky handheld style that's especially well-suited to a rough, high-seas setting, and the director's choice to shoot primarily on open water without relying on special effects lends a palpable authenticity. We can feel both the chop of the ocean and the claustrophobia of the tight metal spaces in which the prisoners are forcibly confined. Although the writing and shooting in the film's early scenes are so profoundly uninspired that I was ready to dismiss it from the get-go, Captain Phillips finds its sea legs once the action commences and doesn't falter again.