Tom Hanks battles pirates in Captain Phillips

Director Paul Greengrass’ latest is a suspenseful, emotionally gripping high-seas action flick.

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Author Tom Clancy was in the news last week thanks to his premature date with death. (He was 66.) I thought of Clancy often during the second half of Captain Phillips, the new action flick from Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass that’s best summarized as “Tom Hanks battles Somali pirates.” For all of his weaknesses as an author, Clancy excelled at taking regular people just doing their jobs (think lowly analyst Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October) and having them rub up against the skilled professionals in the U.S. Armed Forces.

In Captain Phillips, the titular regular guy is played by Hollywood Everyman™ Tom Hanks. Phillips works as the captain of a freighter moving consumer goods and food aid around the horn of Africa headed for India. Off the coast of Somalia, the crew spots two small boats headed their way and run the anti-pirate playbook — sharp turns create big wakes, hoses blast water at the skiffs, desperate calls are made to seemingly non-existent policing entities. The first time the boats come the countermeasures work; the second time, not so much.

Once on board, the pirates, led by the lanky, Khat-chewing Muse (Barkhad Abdi), make their way to the ship’s bridge and grab the captain. So begins a tense cat-and-mouse game, as Phillips tries to keep his crew out of harm’s way and get the interlopers off the boat, while Muse and his small band of cohorts attempt to keep a handle on a situation that continues to escalate beyond their control. One of the joys of Captain Phillips is that both sides of this equation feature smart, brave individuals who act in recognizably human ways.

Director Paul Greengrass has turned harsh reality into compelling fiction before, both with the 9/11 dramatization Flight 93 and the underrated Iraq War flick Green Zone. Based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, by the real-life Richard Phillips (with Stephan Talty), Captain Phillips is of a piece with those earlier films. All three feature Greengrass’ kinetic shooting and editing style, which is highlighted by the artful use of quick edits and shaking cameras to achieve a sustained tension. (Unlike, say, Michael Bay, who uses those same techniques in the service of bludgeoning audiences into submission.)

Though I’m a Greengrass fan, I’ve also seen him execute this particular cinematic trick before. Captain Phillips needed something more: The great performances by both Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. I link them, because I sense that in the rush to praise Hanks (and make no mistake, he’s terrific), the fine work by Abdi will be overlooked. The actor gives Muse dignity, playing what could have been a cardboard villain as a smart hustler for whom the hijacking is just business, an undeclared tax on the companies profiting from the shipping lanes that lie just off the Somali coast. The characters match wits, with Phillips eventually turning oddly paternal with his tormentors, imploring them to give up what fast becomes a no-win situation.

Without giving anything away, the climax of the movie includes all the trappings of the modern technothriller — Navy warships steam in, a SEAL team is deployed, there’s a shootout of sorts, etc. — but is made more gripping because we understand the motivations of the people at the center of the action. It’s in the last act that Hanks really shines, the actor playing brave, terrified, elated and emotionally shattered, often in the same scene. He is the perfect choice for Phillips, and Hanks is sure to be a fixture at this year’s award presentations.

Despite broad strokes that hint at global politics at large, Captain Phillips is ultimately most concerned with the small-ball actions of a few people, and how their lives are ultimately shaped by forces way out of their control. It features a tense build, thrilling climax and some of the best performances of the year. I’m sad Tom Clancy won’t get the chance to see it. I think he would have loved it.

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