Opens Fri., Oct. 11 at Guild 45th and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 132 minutes.
Tom Hanks has taken a lot of abuse in his screen career. He was stranded on a desert island in Cast Away, suffered AIDS in Philadelphia, marooned in space in Apollo 13. And worse, there was Bosom Buddies. Now he’s hijacked and held hostage by Somali pirates, as actually happened to Richard Phillips in 2009, upon whose book this film is based. If you read that account or the newspapers, there’s nothing surprising here, though expert director Paul Greengrass—of the Bourne movies and United 93—adds as much tension as he can, chiefly through jittery cameras, screaming pirates, and the late-film addition of lethal Navy SEALs.
But if I may jump to the end of the movie first: Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray do make the interesting decision not to treat that ending triumphantly. We know things will go badly for the pirates. We know the Navy will do its job with complete professionalism (those are real ships, meaning a military-approved script). But what we could not guess is that after more than two days of cool thinking, protecting his crew, calm negotiating, and even coaching his captors, Captain Phillips would finally lose his shit. The film’s most startling scenes are of his blind confusion and shock, the terror that one associates with Michael Haneke torture porn.
Weakness and fear are not what we expect of our leading men, but Hanks has never played the conventional action hero. Can you name a movie where he’s driven a car into opposing freeway traffic, walked unflinchingly away from an exploding orange fireball, or leapt through the air while firing two pistols in slo-mo? Part of his durable appeal, which almost makes him a throwback to the old studio era, is his commitment to type—a suburban decency and propriety, a respect for the unshowy norms it takes to survive in an often cruel, capricious world. He’s like Walter Mitty without the fantasies, but aware of life’s fantastic turns and twists. (“Oh, great, I fell in love with a mermaid . . . ”)
Captain Phillips is both a worrier and a realist. Driving to the Vermont airport with his wife (Catherine Keener), he frets about their kids being unprepared for the hyper-competitive globalized economy. “Big wheels are turning,” he says. “You gotta be strong to survive out there.” He should know, since his job is to shepherd container ships from one port to another. The route from Oman to Mombasa runs through dangerous waters, and his freighter is equipped with “pirate cages” and water cannons—but no actual weapons—to keep small boats off the hull. Phillips demands that his torpid crew prepare for the worst, and their drill is interrupted by the worst: Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and three fellow pirates, the youngest a teenager. (All are first-time performers cast from Minneapolis’ Somali-American community.)
Muse is the second captain of the film, insisting the ransom racket is “just business . . . taxes” for foreign nations using Somali waters; the third later arrives on a U.S. warship. All three captains understand their intermediary role. The big wheels are above them. Navy Captain Castellano (Yul Vazquez) has the White House on his neck. Muse says of the warlords who stake him, “I got bosses.” “We all got bosses,” replies the weary Phillips, who flatters Muse by treating him as an equal. If not quite cogs, they’re bit players in the global nexus of commerce and power. (Nowhere is jihad mentioned; the pirates have nothing to do with al-Shabab.) Still, their conflict is starkly asymmetrical: all our American military might versus four skinny guys with AK-47s. And here are two models of crew-and-command: the fractious Somalis versus the unified SEALs, each carrying a very different price tag. A better film on the subject was released in July, the Danish A Hijacking, but Captain Phillips reinforces the same point. Muse and Phillips are both small men ferrying large assets in the international supply chain. And if they don’t like the job, plenty of others will take their place.