Early in the modern piracy drama Captain Phillips, the title character drives to his local Vermont airport where he'll pick up a flight for Oman and a freighter bound for a trip around the treacherous Horn of Africa. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) tells Andrea (Catherine Keener), his wife, about how the world is changing, how it's "different" from the one they're used to.
On its face, this observation is an obvious—ham-handed, even—effort to evoke the post-9/11 anxiety that has fueled not just U.S. foreign policy in the past decade but also the terrorism-themed films of director Paul Greengrass. Yet, piracy is as ancient as seafaring itself. The Vikings were pirates, after all, and in Africa, piracy dates to at least the 16th century, when Barbary corsairs plundered European ships and took prisoners.
And when four Somali pirates hijack Phillips' boat, the Maersk Alabama, the interlopers deny political motives. "We not al-Qaida," declares Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), the rail-thin leader of the Somali band, on two separate occasions. "This just business," he continues with a tone meant to convey only qualified reassurance. The pirates cheer when they discover the hijacked vessel is U.S.-flagged, but for financial rather than political reasons.
Beyond being a story about Phillips' personal courage, Captain Phillips is Greengrass' rejection of the myopic, one-size-fits-all depiction of contemporary terrorism. At the same time, Greengrass deconstructs Hollywood's romanticized treatment of piracy that dates back to the silent film era. There's no Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn or Burt Lancaster to swing in and dazzle audiences. Even the film's title is an ironic riff on cinematic swashbucklers from Captain Blood to Captain Jack Sparrow. That changing world Phillips references turns out to be an artistic one.
In its place is a standoff between an average American with his frightened, unarmed crew and the desperate Somalis who must capture a lucrative ransom or face brutal consequences from their warlord minders back home.
Greengrass largely stills his trademark camera-in-a-blender, which allows his visual acuity to take center stage. He effectively conveys a detailed sense of space, from the claustrophobia of a tiny lifeboat to the labyrinth of the Alabama's engine room to the mammoth undertaking of four raiders in a skiff seizing a 500-foot container ship.
There are two captains at the center of Captain Phillips. Phillips is a fastidious micromanager slighted by his unionized crew until danger comes calling. Few actors can play resolute and vulnerable as well as Tom Hanks, and the movie universe is better with him in roles and performances like this, his best in at least a decade. And, among the outstanding quartet of first-time Somali actors, Abdi steals more than one scene as Muse, a dead-eyed mercenary who is both savvy yet in over his head.
Even as Captain Phillips' final act devolves into a coldly efficient procedural, Greengrass finds a way to puncture the air of inevitability. At one point, Phillips asks Muse whether there's more to life than being a fisherman who kidnaps people. Muse responds: "Maybe in America."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Small worlds after all."