There’s a game of wits at the heart of Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’ biopic about the ship captain of the Maersk Alabama who gained fame for keeping a cool head amid a potentially deadly Somali pirate invasion. It’s not just that the title character, played by Tom Hanks with implacable stoicism (if also a terribly grating Vermont accent), is constantly trying to remain two steps ahead of Skinny (Barkhad Abdi), the lead pirate who displays steely bravery, decent English, and unsettling technological savvy. It’s that nearly everybody in this testosterone zone of a flick is, at one time or another, vying for top-dog status, and in nearly every situation. It’s as if testosterone is a tacit commodity among these men.
Director Greengrass sets the stage for this war of wits steadily, albeit with a completely throwaway scene in which Phillips instructs his wife (Catherine Keener) on the finer points (that would be his opinion) of child rearing—and then it’s an engrossing series of scenes showing the master and commander checking out his new digs. The bits in which Phillips examines locks and inspects the crew have a crisp efficiency to them, reminding me of movies starring old-time all-Americans like Gary Cooper. Along the way, we get glimpses of a different kind of order, one in which warlords control the desert villages under their protection. These hardened killers control the lives of these Somalis, which includes demanding they risk their own lives in order to haul in prized loot plucked from seas. The movie, which was scripted by Billy Ray, does an evenhanded job of laying the blame for how things are.
Skinny, whose real name is Musi, may be gaunt, but he’s a force to be reckoned with; when he tells Phillips that “he’s the captain now,” it’s chilling, reminiscent of Robert Mitchum or Peter Lorre in roles equally sinister, if worlds apart. The middle section of the movie is punctuated by the capture of Phillips by the pirates, who haul him into an orange lifeboat that is more like an above-water mini-submarine, and use him as leverage to bring in their real goal, $10 million. This is where the movie shifts focus, and it does so in ways that aren’t necessarily seamless. The Navy Seals are on the case, and we’re treated to Zero Dark Thirty-type night-vision scenes of nicely cut men performing all sorts of clandestine aerobics. To say that their heroics are really, really cool is an understatement, but I’m not sure if we are supposed to compare—and if so, favorably, or not—this brand of American gladiator with that of the New England maritime guy.
This is really Hanks’ movie, and he performs admirably, not really caring that Phillips seems like a dick of the major order, but still bringing us to shudder with him when, at film’s conclusion, he’s a barely masked ball of nerves. But it’s also a story that celebrates the ability, ingenuity and integrity that once defined the American hero. In this way, the movie is reminiscent of Greengrass’ earlier film, United 93, in which a few ordinary brave men did what had to be done to avoid what they figured to be a far worse consequence for their country. Ironically, another Greengrass hero, Jason Bourne, displays some of that same ability, but he does so with some technical assists. When Phillips is escorted to medical bay, it is a corps woman who displays complete command of the moment, of what needs to be done, calmly assessing the situation even as she assures her patient that he is once more in good hands. It’s almost like a prayer sent up to the heavens, that such ability can still exist even in such dire situations.