In a way, it’s a good thing Captain Phillips climbs slowly for most of its 90 minutes. If the first two-thirds were as tense as the final act, the film would be pretty difficult to endure. We last saw that kind of intensity in Zero Dark Thirty and here it is again, at least for the payoff.
Both films share a pretty significant plot point: Most of us already know what happens at the end. The trick is to make it work regardless, to get us so caught up in relatively pointless exposition that we ultimately don’t care. Director Paul Greengrass turns to Tom Hanks to get us so caught up in all that, and who better, frankly?
Hanks plays Rich Phillips, who in 2009 captained the Maersk Alabama through hostile waters off the coast of Somalia. Pirates boarded the ship, took Phillips hostage, and attempted a rather slow escape in one of the ship’s lifeboats. They demanded millions in return for the captain’s life, prompting aggressive military action.
Greengrass knows what he’s doing. United 93 was one of the most overpoweringly dread-filled movies in ages, and his two Jason Bourne movies helped reinvent the action flick. This story, in a nutshell, is what he does: Ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. But that’s a two-sided coin here, since Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirate running the kidnapping, is a more empathetic figure than you might suspect. When Phillips pleads with him that there must be more to life than fishing and kidnapping, Muse solemnly suggests, “Maybe in America.”
Tom Hanks has had nothing to prove for eons, but he really shows up here. In a rare feat, the epilogue of Captain Phillips – which is completely Hanks’ achievement – will be what you remember first and foremost.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, directed by Paul Greengrass, rated PG-13, 134 minutes. Opens Friday.