In Captain Phillips, Greengrass churns up plenty of gut-wrenching tension, but expresses it within a framework that allows for a decent amount of emotional and moral weight. And unlike many thrillers, this one avoids the kind of flag-waving cliches that could have turned it into another muscle-flexing drama, an overly robust look at a cargo ship that's taken over by a quartet of Somali pirates.
With Hanks in the lead role, there's no doubt about where our rooting interest lies, but Greengrass' rendition of this true 2009 story also shows the desperate humanity of the Somali pirates, hijackers who never entirely master the inherent messiness of a trade run by warlords who tend to observe from afar.
Working from a script by Billy Ray, Greengrass certainly doesn't condone hijacking, but he's clearly aware that a hijacking can take on a life of its own, trapping the hijackers as well as those whom they wish to victimize.
After some brief introductory material, Greengrass gets down to the business at hand, a fraught confrontation between Phillips and his chief captor, a Somali pirate named Muse, played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi with an uncompromising blend of desperation and ferocity. Abdi enhances our understanding of a man who believes he has no other option but to make a big-money play. Muse is misguided enough to say -- with a bit of serious, I think -- that he'll be able to use his ill-gotten money to move to the U.S.
This kind of fantasy can seem ridiculous to American viewers, but if you've traveled in materially deprived parts of the so-called developing world, you may have encountered young people who see the U.S. as a giant ATM, where cash is readily available to everyone. A tiny minority of these youngsters might not imagine that asking for $10 million from a U.S. company to ransom hostages could be in any way preposterous. By some estimates, annual per capita income in Somalia is around $600.
Making sparing use of a New England accent, Hanks doesn't try to turn Phillips into a blockbuster-style hero. As captain of the Maersk Alabama, Phillips works to protect his crew, but he's a civilian in a situation that ultimately calls for a military response. That response, complete with war ships and Navy SEALS, arrives toward the end of the film, and allows Greengrass to put pedal to the metal in terms of action.
By that time, Phillips has been taken prisoner in a lifeboat that looks like a space module created by a country with no budget for technology. Inside the cramped, overheated yellow lifeboat, we begin to see heightened dissension among the four hijackers, one of whom is a still a teen-ager.
When Phillips tells the kid that he has no business being involved in something as dangerous as high-seas piracy, he's not just working the young man. He's serious. The youthful hijacker may not grasp the full meaning of Phillips' remark, but it's clear that the kid is scared and out of his depth when it comes to this level of violence.
That's a clue about what makes Captain Phillips tick. It's an action movie that wants to bring believable humanity into a situation in which just about everyone's destined to lose something.
Nothing embodies this spirit of devastation more than the movie's final scene. The way Hanks handles the movie's conclusion is so stunningly realistic that it lifts Captain Phillips above the military triumphalism that could have marked a lesser movie. I don't think Hanks ever has worked this close to the emotional bone before.
And when you think about the military power that was required to save Phillips from four scrawny pirates with automatic weapons and big-money dreams, you can't help but feel the sickness of the pressure-cooker world in which too much of the planet lives.
Note: I've been traveling and out-of-touch with the movie scene for nearly three weeks. This review of Captain Phillips is part of my catch-up effort.