Captain Phillips tells the true story of the pirate hijacking of an American container ship off the coast of Somalia in 2009. The ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, (played in the film by Tom Hanks) was imprisoned for several days, first on his own ship, and then on a claustrophobic lifeboat with no one for company but his captors.
Hanks plays the titular captain as a simple man who’s never been in an extraordinary situation like this before in his life. His performance doesn’t immediately grab you, but that’s part of why it works. Phillips may be portrayed by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but there’s nothing glamorous or attractive about the character, which makes him intensely relatable. The captain seems completely out of place in an international hostage crisis. That out-of-place feeling strengthens the audience’s attachment to Phillips.
For most of the film Phillips walks a razor-thin line between appeasing the pirates in order to protect his crew, while also not completely fulfilling their demands, some of which would place the entire ship in jeopardy. Every exchange between Phillips and the pirate leader has a pulse-pounding tension to it. You never know if Phillips will push his captors too far, or if he’s not pushing them far enough. Suspense crackles through every frame of the film like a live wire.
Many will steer away from Captain Phillips because they fear it’s too dark, too scary, too depressing. Don’t believe it. There’s giddy entertainment to be found in the high-stakes action and nail-biting suspense that permeates most of the film. That said, director Paul Greengrass clearly cares more about effective storytelling than in-your-face violence. The director has more artful restraint than many of his contemporaries, and that restraint lends the movie a deep feeling of authenticity.
In recent years, members of Richard Phillips’ crew have claimed that he glamorized himself in his rose-tinted memoirs of the incident, on which the film is based. I’m not familiar enough with the true story of Richard Phillips’ abduction to say whether or not the film depicts it accurately. What I know for sure is that Greengrass’ stellar direction and Hanks’ moving performance make Captain Phillips one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.