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Proving once again that true stories with foregone conclusions can be just as gripping as a conventional thriller, Paul Greengrass's tense, overwhelming Captain Phillips faithfully, fiercely recounts the siege of the American container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in April of 2009. The titular captain was the visible hero of the ordeal, and of course he's played here by Tom Hanks, with a paunch and beard that makes him only more relatable as our go-to American Everyman. The affected Boston accent indicates some effort at capturing the real Phillips, but Hanks's performance is all about natural authority and courage, with a commitment and deep emotion that reflects the film's propulsive, relentless drive.
From the brief prologues, in which we see Phillips leave his cozy Vermont home to report for duty in Oman and a group of Somali pirates in a beachside village prepare for takeover, it's clear that Greengrass wants both sides of the conflict on screen. Hanks and general moral principles obviously tilt the scales for the Americans, but as Somali lead Muse, newcomer Barkhad Abdi does remarkable work bringing the Somali side to life. The basic details of Muse's situation are fuzzy-- obvious poverty, warlords demanding all able-bodied men take to piracy-- but Greengrass is generous enough to let us see, however briefly, the David vs. Goliath story this could be from another angle. As the pirate schiffs approach the Alabama miles from the coast of Somalia, the contrast is absurd. How can these bedraggled men, one of them a shoeless teenager, overcome that mammoth tribute to American capitalist might?
They do, of course, and Greengrass doesn't need to linger too long on heady thoughts about economic worlds colliding-- he's got an amazing siege story to tell. In this first half we watch Phillips as well as his crew work to outsmart the pirates, both thinking on their feet and calling on the resources of the American commercial and military forces that (theoretically) can bail them out. Greengrass and his trademark shaky camera-- still more effective in his hands than his many copycats-- stage a series of fantastically tense near-escapes and conflicts, allowing us to get to know these pirates and marvel at the ingenuity and basic heroism of Phillips, who doesn't hesitate to offer himself as a sacrifice when one of his men is threatened.
It's that same straightforward courage that lands Phillips inside one of his ship's lifeboats along with the four pirates, on a journey back to Somalia that Phillips knows-- or at least pretends to know-- cannot end in their success. At that point Captain Phillips switches to a slow boil, cutting between the stifling lifeboat and the various military organizations who have stepped in to organize a rescue. It's remarkable how Greengrass loses none of the tension when stepping away from Phillips and introducing new heroes, like Max Martini's SEAL Commander, while reveling in the sheer expanse of the military might. No matter how much we and Phillips may come to see the pirates as real humans, it's impossible not to marvel at the SEALs jumping from a plane or the incredible precision of the negotiations. With no explosions and only a handful of bullets, Greengrass creates one of the most impressive, captivating military spectacles in recent years.
Hanks, who has proven too many times recently that he can coast and mug his way to disaster on screen, is dialed back and stern for most of the film, barking orders to his crew then attempting cold, simple reason with his captors. Near the end of the film he's allowed to turn up the emotion, but even then-- at the conclusion we've all been expecting-- he manages to surprise. Hanks has been such a familiar star for so long that it was easy to think he'd run out of tricks (Cloud Atlas face tattoos aside), but he is so commanding, so authentic here, taking what could be cheap, sentimental heroism and creating a real but extraordinary human who is just smart enough to survive. As with United 93, it's fair to ask why we need Captain Phillips, a very truthful recreation of a very famous true story. But the visceral feeling of surviving alongside the Captain, and the incredible catharsis that comes with it at the end, is its own answer. True stories this remarkable are rare, and movies about them that work this well are even rarer.
Captain Phillips opens the New York Film Festival tonight.