British director Paul Greengrass is best known for “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but it’s always been easy to say that his best film, by far, the truly devastating Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks recreation, “United 93.”
Easy to say, that is, until now, with the release of the intensely powerful and, almost as a byproduct, nerve-wrackingly entertaining “Captain Phillips.” “United 93” still has the edge, simply because of the historical enormity of its subject matter, but “Phillips,” which also deals with a complicated real-world drama of global proportions, is every bit as much worth seeing.
Greengrass began his career as a journalist and documentary filmmaker and he’s made his name by approaching his dramatic work with a similar sort of urgency, without sacrificing realism. That’s certainly the case here, as Captain Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks at his best, though much more taciturn than usual) prepares for his next assignment, which involves taking a plane from his home in Vermont to Oman, where he’s been hired to pilot the cargo ship Maersk Alabama through pirate-inhabited waters to Mombassa. It’s 2009 and, while driving to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener), they fret about the new, grim economic realities that have affected his work and could make life tougher for their children than it has been for them.
At that point, Greengrass switches abruptly to a seaside village in Somalia, where armed men have arrived to express the displeasure of their warlord, at the men’s recent failure to hijack a ship. Their message is clear: if the men of the village don’t take soon, they will pay.
And that’s where Greengrass leaves the socio-economic overview, for the most part — as a plain observation of realities. Soon, Phillips has arrived and is preparing the Maersk for departure and the two crews of Somali men are preparing to go hunting — and not without mercenary enthusiasm. They’re excited about the prospect of making some money, it’s clear, though their two leaders have different attitudes about it. One is loud, insulting and bullying, while the other, named Muse (Barkhad Abdi, a likely Best Supporting Actor nominee) is quiet, thoughtful, and quite obviously not the sort of man to trifle with.
It’s Muse that we’ll be following throughout “Captain Phillips,” as he manages to board the colossal Maersk with three armed men, take control of it and begin a battle of wills, and wits, with the calm and extremely capable Phillips.
“I am captain now,” Muse tells Phillips, but who has the upper hand from moment to moment, during the tense confrontation that follows on board the Maersk, and later in a lifeboat where the Somalis hold Phillips hostage, is difficult to say. The only thing that’s certain, as the U.S. Navy trails the ship with a destroyer and Navy SEALS move in to put an end to the situation one way or another (their orders stating that Phillips must not be allowed to be taken alive to Somalia) is that none of them seem likely to survive.
This was a situation that played out live on the world’s televisions for five days when it occurred, so it’s well known how it ended, but we’ll leave that unsaid. Simply know that the drama is played out in fascinating detail and with ever-increasing tension by Greengrass — and that before it’s over, Hanks has produced some of the most deeply felt, emotionally wrenching, acting of his career. Don’t miss it.