Once again, Tom Hanks stars in a true-events film where his character is stuck in a small, dangerous space for a long time with an outcome most of us might know from following the news. Even though the ending is out there, Hanks and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) somehow make the story suspenseful.
As he did with the true story of Apollo 13, Hanks does for Captain Phillips; he makes us terrified and confused for his character even though the outcome of said character's predicament is well known. He does this by, well, doing an excellent job of playing somebody who is terrified and confused.
If you don't know the outcome of the story, see the film and be doubly frightened. If you must know all the details of the outcome before seeing the film, you're going to have to Google that shit because I'm not telling.
Hanks plays Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship. While delivering relief goods to Kenya in 2009, his ship encounters Somali pirates who couldn't give a rat's ass about charity and try multiple times to board his ship. They eventually succeed, putting into play a crazy hostage drama that results in Phillips being taken aboard a space-capsule-sized lifeboat with his captors.
In every stage of this thriller, from the moment Phillips spots the pirates for the first time trailing his ship, through his initial confrontation with them face to face and the subsequent search for the hidden crew, Hanks is masterful. His Phillips maintains a certain level of calm and smarts, but isn't superhuman or oblivious to the true terrors of his situation.
Augmenting the story with a terrifying yet somehow oddly sympathetic performance is Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the pirate leader. One of the major strengths of this film is the relationship between Phillips and Muse, one that basically starts with Muse informing Phillips that he is no longer the captain of his own ship.
Without necessarily portraying Muse as a victim, there are suggestions in Abdi's performance and Greengrass' direction that Muse is being forced into his reprehensible actions. We first see Muse in Somalia, being bullied into action by a village elder who tails him in a bigger boat and seems to be suggesting dire punishment if Muse doesn't comply with hijacking plans to extort millions from the Americans.
Whether or not this is a true account of Muse's participation in the actual hijacking, it definitely makes him a more fleshed-out character in the movie. As for the interplay between Abdi and Hanks, it is chilling, fraught with tension and always on the edge of explosion.
Of the supporting cast, Michael Chernus distinguishes himself playing chief mate Shane Murphy. You might recognize Chernus from his geeky guy role in Men in Black 3. This time out, he's called upon to show the dramatic goods, and he comes through nicely. Catherine Keener shows up in the first scene as Phillips' wife, then disappears. We don't get any scenes of her biting her nails while awaiting her husband's fate.
The movie seems to be a fairly accurate representation of what actually happened during the event, although some crew members of the Maersk Alabama have taken issue with Phillips' account of the hijacking in his book, A Captain's Duty, on which the movie is based. Some of them are saying Phillips acted irresponsibly, ignoring warnings to stay at least 600 miles off the Somali coast due to pirates in the area, and not following proper procedures when the pirates boarded his ship.
Taking all this into consideration, the story portrayed in the film remains engrossing, with Greengrass keeping the action very much on the realistic and believable side. Some of you might also be relieved to know that Greengrass and his crew are relaxing a bit on the whole shaky cam thing, something that got a little tiresome in his Bourne movies. Yes, there's some shakiness in this film, but nothing that distracts from the action.
Hanks delivers his role in a sort of strange Boston accent that I had a hard time identifying. It's not all that distracting, really. Just pretend his character is Australian and you'll be OK. He's so good here he can butcher an accent and still be worthy of an Oscar nomination.
So, future film directors who will be delivering fact-based stories wherein the main protagonist is confined in a claustrophobic space facing great danger ... Captain Phillips is further proof that Hanks is most definitely your go-to guy!