The film is drawn from the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, which was seized by Somali pirates while sailing around the Horn of Africa. Rich Phillips, the captain, was taken hostage when the pirates escaped in a lifeboat; except for a brief prologue with Phillips at home, the film basically covers the pirate drama.
In most ways, "Captain Phillips" is a tight-wound suspense picture, but it rejects easy hero-vs.-villain button-pushing. Some of that comes from the documentary-like style of director Paul Greengrass, whose main gift is to plunk you into the middle of a crisis as though it's actually happening at that moment.
Greengrass directed "United 93" and the latter two "Bourne" spy movies, and you will recognize his jittery style (the guy is allergic to tripods).
He and screenwriter Billy Ray worked from Capt. Phillips' book about the incident, "A Captain's Duty," although some liberties have been taken.
The potential for throat-clutching anxiety is obvious, and there's plenty of that here. But it's an interesting movie in more ways than that. The sheer weirdness of 21st-century piracy -- this big modern cargo ship overtaken by four guys with guns -- is part of the fascination.
There's something almost surreal about the captain looking out from his clean, state-of-the-art bridge and seeing tiny specks pop up on the radar. How do those specks translate into the anachronistic idea of pirates?
Even more intriguingly, without getting bleeding-heart about it, Greengrass makes you curious about the Somali pirates. They're thugs, but also desperate men motivated by a variety of causes. Their leader is played by Barkhad Abdi, a Somalia native who moved to Minnesota after winning an immigration lottery.
Tom Hanks is key to making this more than a Sylvester Stallone slaughter-the-bad-guys exercise. Because he's our Everyman, we see in his face how anger, fear and comprehension vie for the upper hand during his grueling experience.
As though to squash any sense of triumphalism, the film offers an extraordinary final sequence that conveys how shattering an experience like this might be even if one survives it. And here Tom Hanks excels--and by implication, proves how phony the idea of the superhero really is.
"Captain Phillips" (three and a half stars)
Tom Hanks excels in this account of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, when Somali pirates got the upper hand over a U.S. cargo ship off the Horn of Africa. Director Paul Greengrass makes this a gripping suspense picture, and he and Hanks make sure the captain is no superhero.
Rated: PG-13 for violence, language.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Edmonds, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Guild 45th, Meridian, Thornton Place, Oak Harbor.
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