Every person has a public side that they show the world, and a private one that they reveal only to themselves and God. Yet it is in the moments where we stare death in the face – whether in a car accident, skydiving or a cancer diagnosis – that our inner self and its indomitable spirit rises to the surface.
In the fact-based, nail-biting new thriller “Captain Phillips,” Tom Hanks puts that principle in action through his portrayal of Captain Richard Phillips, the American seaman who made worldwide headlines in the spring of 2009 when his massive cargo ship was attacked by Somali pirates and he was taken as a solo hostage aboard its lifeboat when the raid went awry and the marauders were forced to flee.
Phillips is a gruff, no-nonsense man at the film’s start, the kind of boss who orders his crew back to work the moment they hit 15 minutes on their coffee break. We see glimpses of his upright personal life, in a brief exchange with his wife before he ships out, and via the rosary beads that dangle from his car’s rear-view mirror as he drives to the port.
But it’s when he has to protect his crew from the pirates that we see the caring side of Phillips emerge for his men to see. He devises an elaborate series of maneuvers that enable his ship to outwit and evade the encroaching evildoers, in a thrilling sequence that ends with his crew’s vastly increased respect for him.
Yet it’s Phillips’ by-the-book style that gets them back into much bigger trouble the next day. His crew wanted to speed their ship far out of the pirates’ range overnight, but Phillips insisted on following their scheduled route to deliver the thousands of tons of goods carried aboard their freighter.
As a result, the pirates make a second, successful raid in which they board the ship, leading Phillips to offer them an escape in the lifeboat and the $30,000 in cash from the safe if they would just leave without harming him or his crew. But the pirates were desperate for more, believing they could get as much as $10 million in ransom for him from his ship’s insurance company if they can just land on the Somali shore with the captain.
Thus results the film’s central dilemma: the pirates make a desperate run for it even as the US Navy arrived with contradictory orders: to try and resolve the situation peacefully, but to stop the pirates from reaching their homeland at all costs. Of course, the ending of Phillips’ ordeal is public knowledge, as an ace team of Navy SEALS parachuted onto a nearby aircraft carrier and in a daringly precise maneuver, shot the three remaining pirates aboard the lifeboat at the exact same time.
The fact that director Paul Greengrass is able to still make it all feel exciting and unpredictable is a testament to the master craftsmanship of the man behind “The Bourne Ultimatum” and more aptly, “United 93.” With that 2006 film, Greengrass placed viewers smack in the middle of a dead-on recreation of one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history - the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on United Airlines Flight 93, which ended when passengers fought back and downed the aircraft in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Greengrass used unknown actors in that film as a means of making them just as anonymous and average as the real-life passengers who rose to acts of heroism on that fateful morning. He applies that approach with “Captain Phillips” as well, hiring unknowns as the crew and especially among the pirates, whom he cast from the Somali refugee community in Minneapolis. The result is that because the audience isn’t expecting Brad Pitt to save the day, they can be surprised throughout by the story’s non-stop twists.
It’s also a reflection of the deeper themes in “Captain Phillips”: of the strength that comes from an even unspoken faith in right triumphing over wrong, and the belief that decency will trump evil. In “Phillips,” Greengrass opted to hire Hanks – our modern era’s paragon of onscreen decency, akin to Jimmy Stewart – as a calming presence amid the chaos, a sign to audiences that no matter how harrowing the ride, things would turn out OK.
That doesn’t mean that Hanks is his usual charming self in the role of Phillips. He is unmistakably challenged and scared, showing the mental and emotional shifts that Phillips makes from being a tough and cranky boss who keeps his feelings locked under a steely reserve into a wily negotiator for his own life and ultimately a man who endures unbelievable tension. His performance appears deceptively simple at first, but by the end the two-time Oscar winner pulls out all the stops and redefines the public perception of his capabilities.
“Captain Phillips” also deserves credit for presenting the pirates as more than mere villains, as writer Billy Ray show the economic desperation and fierce yet wounded pride that drives these men to steal and kill in a failed nation that offers no legal options for survival. In doing so, it serves as a reminder that many criminals do wrong not because they are evil, but because they feel they have no options to succeed in life by doing right.
“Captain Phillips” is a long movie, running 134 minutes, and perhaps it could have 15 minutes shaved off from the lifeboat’s scenes of circular arguments among the terrorists. But in giving viewers a challenging portrait of grace and resolve while facing down near-certain death, it is not only an exciting time at the movies but one that – in handling its violence in mostly non-graphic fashion and with a minimum of foul language, with no F words – is appropriate for teenagers and adults, and with parental discretion, perhaps age 10 and up.