If there’s any doubt that Paul Greengrass has become one of the world’s most consistently excellent action directors, Captain Phillips should put it to rest. The British director’s latest Hollywood thriller, which recounts events still fresh in our collective memory, might lack the pyrotechnics we’ve come to associate with the genre, but it outdoes nearly all of its flashier competition in terms of sheer nerve-shredding tension.
Captain Phillips, of course, is the story of the 2009 hijacking of an American container ship by Somali pirates. On the heels of Gravity, it’s the second film in as many weeks to hammer us with a shifting and profoundly unsettling sense of scale as its characters are alternately dwarfed by their environments and confined to tiny, claustrophobic vessels.
The Indian Ocean isn’t space, but it might as well be for Capt. Richard Phillips, who found himself and his crew at the mercy of four gunmen who stalked, pursued, and, incredibly, took over the massive Maersk Alabama in April 2009. Help arrived in the form of two U.S. Navy ships and a team of SEALs, but not before Phillips was taken hostage in a tiny, enclosed lifeboat, where he waited out a three-day standoff between the Navy and his captors.
The movie gets off to an awkward start as Phillips (Tom Hanks) packs for a trip in his Vermont home and says goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener). As they drive to the airport, the couple belabors what will become one of the film’s themes: how quickly the world is changing, and how some are left in the lurch. Half a world away, four Somali men embark on a very different journey as the local warlord warns them of the consequences of not bringing in a suitable haul. One of the pirates is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a gaunt, shrewd young man who’s out to prove himself to his stronger, more ruthless colleagues.
Obviously, Phillips’ and Muse’s paths soon intersect. Not long after the gruff, no-nonsense Phillips takes command of the cargo ship—which happens to be carrying food for humanitarian relief efforts in Africa, among other things—Muse sets his sights on the vessel. The lumbering merchant ship can only evade the pirates’ tiny skiff for so long; after a harrowing siege, Muse and his crew take over the freighter, and the real ordeal begins.
Greengrass, working from a script by Billy Ray, who in turn based the story on Phillips’ own account of the hijacking, gets a lot of mileage out of contrasts. Differences abound between the Maersk sailors—union men who, compared to their eventual captors, have it pretty good—and the pirates—gaunt, desperate men with little to lose and, once their bosses take the lion’s share of whatever they bring home, probably not much more to gain. As the film focuses on the struggle between Phillips and Muse, Greengrass drives home ideas about the consequences of globalization and disenfranchisement that, in the hands of a lesser director, would be preachy and stilted. Captain Phillips isn’t subtle, but it’s artful enough to be thought-provoking rather than didactic.
As a thriller, Captain Phillips can be broken down into three broad beats. There’s the initial chase and seizure, the extended showdown aboard the ship as the pirates and merchants vie for control, and the protracted, grueling standoff once Phillips is taken hostage. Even if you remember how the story ends—it’s not much of a spoiler to say that it culminates in a brief burst of gunfire and a whole lot of blood—Greengrass delivers relentless tension, cranked up to an exhausting level for very long stretches.
The climax, which sees two massive Navy ships and the Alabama closing in on the lifeboat as SEALs drop from the sky, is spectacular and stunningly well staged, but it’s the movie’s dénouement that really underscores its power. I’ve been apathetic about Hanks as an actor for several years now, but I absolutely believe he deserves an Oscar entirely on the merits of Captain Phillips’ final scene. It’s a moment that engenders the kind of honest empathy that, for me, at least, is rarely present in mainstream action films. You’ll hear and read much about Captain Phillips’ final moments, and for good reason. If Gravity gave us the most unabashedly stunning visuals of the year, Hanks provides its thespian counterpart. The movie’s last scene is an elegant, visceral and emotionally devastating piece of filmmaking that, in its own way, is every bit as stunning as Gravity’s scenes of physical spectacle. If you can get through it unmoved and undisturbed, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.