Review

The Pirates Take His Ship, but Tom Hanks Steals the Show

The actor’s restrained performance helps make 'Captain Phillips' one of the best action films of recent times.

A series of action films is flooding our movie screens, together with a large number of films that reconstruct actual historical events. “Captain Phillips” unifies these two genres, and the result is one of the best movies we have seen recently in either genre.

Maybe we should not be so surprised. The film was directed by Paul Greengrass, and the films of his that I have seen show talent and wisdom. These are films of both genres mentioned above. In 2002, Greengrass directed an impressive film entitled “Bloody Sunday,” which described, with powerful directness, the incident in which British troops fired on a demonstration in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing 14 people. In 2006, Greengrass directed “Flight 93,” which tells the story of United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked on September 11, 2001, and the passengers who fought to regain control of the doomed aircraft, which crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In 2004 and 2007, Greengrass directed two films of the Bourne franchise, “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

After a brief and almost superfluous prologue, Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) is seen packing his bags at his home in Vermont and going to the airport with his wife Andrea (played by Catherine Keener). From there he will be flying to the port where the container ship under his command is anchored. The film tells the story of the hijacking of the ship by four Somali pirates. The incident, which was the first hijacking of an American seagoing vessel in more than 200 years, made headlines all over the world. After several harrowing days, it ended with a rescue by the United States Navy SEALs.

The prologue, which seems a bit stuck-on, has a didactic dimension that the film itself avoids. Its purpose is to introduce the stable family that Phillips must leave for long periods on his voyages, and for which he yearns during the nightmare he undergoes (“Tell my family ‘I love you,’” he shouts at one point when his life is in danger). The only goal achieved by the prologue presenting Phillips as an ordinary human being, and most of the film’s power stems from telling the story of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

Phillip’s vessel sails for Kenya from Oman, carrying food intended for several African countries among its other cargo. The voyage includes sailing through international waters near the Somalian coast. In accordance with the law, the small crew on the vessel is unarmed.

The film works for several reasons. First among them is the direction, which skillfully depicts the chain of events in cinematic momentum and clarity. Greengrass knows how to create cinema, and he makes sophisticated use of the dramatic high points without falling into pretentiousness. Still, and maybe because of this, the result is fascinating, even if we know how the story ends. It has been a long time since I felt such suspense while watching a film.

Another reason why the film works is that Greengrass does not try to make the story a heroic cinematic adventure and turn his protagonist into a superhero. Even though Phillips and his crew cope intelligently with the crisis and American troops get involved, the film steers clear of heroics, unlike most recent action films (which may be the reason why “Captain Phillips” does not seem poised to be a big hit in its country of origin).

The factualism and credibility that inform Greengrass in the making of this film are what give it its uniqueness in the landscape of contemporary cinema and its power, which builds as the story develops. While “Captain Phillips” contains human heroism, its avoidance of schematic and superficial heroics is what allows Greengrass to create a film that deals with a disturbing historical event without dividing its characters into the good guys — the Americans — and the bad guys — the pirates. His film describes an incident that is more complex in human, ethnic, cultural and economic terms than the conflict between good and evil.

He deals with the conflict between two worlds, the affluent West versus the poverty-stricken Third World. With the help of the excellent screenplay written by Billy Ray based on two books that tell the story of the incident — one written by Phillips himself and the other by Stephan Talty — he is wise and fair enough to avoid making the four pirates into the film’s bad guys. Instead, he gives them a human dimension through which they acquire equal standing in the equation that takes shape in “Captain Phillips.” In addition, even as we feel compassion toward Phillips because of the suffering he endures, the characters of the pirates, thrown as they are into a situation that was much too big for them and their limited ability to deal with America’s power, touch even our hearts. This is particularly true of Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), who declares himself the pirate captain, and whose presence is as strong as that of Phillips.

Still another reason why the film works is the performance of Tom Hanks, who as an actor is not always successful at piquing my curiosity, but in “Captain Phillips” he plays one of the best roles of his long career. This high quality stems from the pragmatism and restraint he employs throughout most of the film — and these two traits combine with the attempt of the film as a whole to avoid the expected and obligatory sort of heroics. In the film, Hanks plays a professional doing his job. He projects efficiency and a certain coolness that turns out to be helpful, particularly when he is put to the test. Since Hanks acts this way throughout much of the film, the revelation of his character’s humanity and fragility is so effective. Even if Hanks does not always pique my curiosity, I have always admired him as an actor who conceals the great deal of effort and work he puts into his best roles. In “Captain Phillips,” which is simply a good film, this ability reaches one of its peaks, even when his characteristic restraint is replaced by an outburst of emotion.

“Captain Phillips.” Director: Paul Greengrass; screenplay: Billy Ray; cinematography: Barry Ackroyd; Music: Henry Jackman. With Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi and Catherine Keener.

Sony - Columbia Pictures / AP