(Watch Captain Phillips Online) From Gravity to All Is Lost and 12 Years a Slave, 'tis the season for survival stories, and another good one joins this classy club with Captain Phillips, a pulsating account of the kidnapping of the captain of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates. Something of a companion piece for director Paul Greengrass to his superb United 93, which was based on the real-life takeover of one of the 9/11 aircraft, this immaculately made reconstruction of a chaotic incident will have a much better time of it commercially than the earlier film due to the presence of star Tom Hanks and because it has a happy ending. Set to world premiere as the opening-night attraction of the New York Film Festival on Sept. 27, the Sony release will go out commercially Oct. 11.
(Watch Captain Phillips Online) With his irrepressibly kinetic style, Greengrass could probably make the opening of a cereal box exciting, so it was almost a no-brainer that he could successfully handle a story like this, which features not only logistical challenges but the sort of volatile political backdrop he has favored in most of his work. Still, for a story that pits locals versus Americans in the Middle East and boasts a climax that involves Navy SEALs, U.S. choppers and warships, the taut screenplay by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, The Hunger Games) essentially makes no mention of religion, al-Qaida or the war on terror, concentrating on the more essential reality of impoverished young men, some of them fishermen, pushed to extreme measures by the big bucks bandit bosses offer for Western hostages, for whom they can demand millions. It's "just business," as so many criminals throughout history have said.
(Watch Captain Phillips Online) And so it is for Hanks' Richard Phillips, a middle-aged civilian captain who bids his wife (Catherine Keener) adieu in Vermont in late March 2009 to take an enormous container ship from southern Oman down along the coast of Somalia and then to Kenya. Unusually for a vessel in these waters, it's an American ship, the Maersk Alabama out of Norfolk, manned by a U.S. crew. Phillips is curt with his crew members and, given the rash of pirate attacks of late, extremely attentive to security matters. He doesn't say it in so many words, but it's clear Phillips just wants to get this job done as quickly as possible, collect his check and go home.
On the beach in the pirate city of Eyl, Somalia, voyages of a different sort are being organized by shouting, rifle-toting young African men recruiting crews to hijack large vessels out at sea and bring back money as well as hostages who might be exchanged for very large ransoms. Dozens of mostly skinny guys in their teens and 20s eagerly volunteer for action; in short order, enough to man two skiffs are selected.
(Watch Captain Phillips Online) The usual Greengrass skill is evident with the diverse settings and mix of languages and accents, the combination of technologies high and low, the laying out of logistics and constant movement from place to place and the outer limits of human resilience and endurance in dealing with severe threats to them. The director has long since mastered relaying exposition as economically as possible and, visually, he and ace cinematographer Barry Ackroyd make the tiny open motorboats that pursue the hulking, graceless container ship look like minnows bird-dogging a whale.
(Watch Captain Phillips Online) As it happens, the alert Captain Phillips notices the two boats bearing down on him just as he's conducting an attack preparation drill. As the Alabama moves very slowly and has limited maneuverability, there's not much the crew can do but slowly shift course and fire big water hoses at the marauders -- rather incredibly in these waters, a merchant vessel carries no arms. Discouraged by increasingly rough seas, one skiff turns back, but the other perseveres, enabling four pirates to climb aboard using a ladder they hook to the ship's side.
Thus ensues a cat-and-mouse game in which the crew hides in the engine room while Phillips, called "Irish" by the bony, buck-toothed ringleader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), tries to stall for time. Whenever they sense any games are being played, the pirates go into paroxysms of ranting and raving and, soon enough, Phillips offers them the $30,000 in cash he has on hand to call it a day. But the hothead of the group, Najee (Faysal Ahmed), knows better, insisting they hold out for millions since all these ships are insured for just such an incident.
(Watch Captain Phillips Online) As Muse and the youngest pirate, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), are injured and a big U.S. Navy vessel is moving in, the pirates shortly take off with their most valuable asset, Captain Phillips, in an orange, ugly-looking lifeboat in which they hope to reach the Somali coast within 36 hours. As tempers fray and conditions become suffocating in this little shell of a craft, the American military goes into a full-court press, dispatching more boats as well as Navy SEALs to the scene to try to rescue Phillips.
Since this military operation was big news in April 2009, the outcome is no surprise. However, if the film accurately depicts how it went down, it was even more hair-breadth and last-second than was generally reported. But more powerful even than that is Hanks' stunned response to the attack and his emotional aftermath. Hysteria, delayed reaction, wordless silence — these have been seen many times in dramatized accounts of traumatic events. But Hanks has come up with something different, a rendering of a state of shock quite unique in which his altered condition stands in extreme contrast to the routine questions and reassurances of the attending nurse. It's an extraordinary scene, one for which there is little precedent.
(Watch Captain Phillips Online) The presentation of the four pirates, who speak in their local language as well as in some English, is both interesting and a bit predictable. These are young men -- or, in at least one case, a teenager -- who didn't know one another before being selected for the mission, and they spend a lot of time criticizing and bickering. Muse establishes a measure of rapport with Phillips, frequently assuring him they don't mean to harm him no matter how frequently the wild-eyed Najee shouts and waves a gun in his face, while Bilal is mostly hobbled with his injury and skipper Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) seems petrified driving no matter what craft he's in.
The film rips right along and never relinquishes its grip. The format of the last-minute heroics goes back to the earliest Westerns and could well be accused of patness or being cliched -- other than for the fact that it's what happened. Unsurprisingly, though, the director indulges in no jingoistic, rah-rah stuff with the Navy, even if it has not often been the case that American military operations in the Middle East have come off exactly as planned.