Paul Greengrass has staked out a very specific place in the cinema world. His best films - and almost all of his films are his best films - are about people pushed into impossible situations, places where survival and politics and basic humanity all collide. His films take place in the real world, even fictional films like his masterful Bourne duology. His movies are impressed by the clockwork strength of military firepower but also constantly, totally mistrustful of it. Paul Greengrass is making the movies that will define the early 21st century for the generations that come after.
Captain Phillips comes closer to the United 93 side of his spectrum, but Greengrass’ time with Bourne has given him an almost preternatural mastery of tension, suspense and action. The film is a real danger to those given to biting their nails during intense sequences; you’ll be left with bloody stumps when the full two hours play out. Based on a true story, Captain Phillips procedurally walks us through the details of the hijacking of a cargo ship by Somali pirates. That procedural - already taught and often terrifying - ramps up as the hijacking turns into a hostage situation and the hostage situation turns into a total military clusterfuck, with the inevitability of violence looming ever larger.
Tom Hanks is Captain Rich Phillips, a decent family man who runs his boat in a no-nonsense way. The Maersk Alabama is rounding the Horn of Africa with food and water supplies for the starving, and Phillips knows he’s headed into pirate seas. He keeps his men on alert and conducts drills, attempting to be ready should the worst case scenario happen.
And does it ever. During one of the drills the Maersk is buzzed by pirates in skiffs; while the ship gets away everyone knows the pirates will be back the next day. And they are, four skinny men armed with machine guns and a determination to get rich the only way they know how.
In Black Hawk Down Ridley Scott presented the Somalis as a force akin to zombies - a horde, a mob without humanity. That’s not Greengrass’ style, and the script by Billy Ray gives each of the four men their own individual humanity. At the head of the pirate group is Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi as a guy who, in other circumstances, could be the hero. Muse is so gaunt even the other thin Somalis call him skinny, but what he lacks in meat he has in willpower. Ordered by the local warlord to take a ship and make lots of money with it, Muse is unwilling to be deterred from his task, even as the situation spirals out of control. He won’t give up, and as the movie goes on we begin to understand why - this is a small man from a country the rest of the world considers small. He wants to prove himself, he wants to make good with the bosses, and he wants to show that Somalis can’t be pushed around. Muse would make an inspiring rebel leader if an invading force took over Somalia, but those same qualities make him an extraordinarily dangerous pirate.
Abdi is terrific, playing with simultaneous doubt and determination in every scene. He’s naive enough to think he can visit New York after hijacking the Alabama but savvy enough to understand that every move made by the US is a trick (which makes his final decisions very fascinating). We see on Abdi’s face the calculations he makes as his options grow ever narrower, as what had been a routine hijacking turns into a military incident involving the US Navy and a wrath-of-God level appearance by the SEALs.
He has to be terrific because he’s constantly opposite Tom Hanks, who is doing possibly the best work of his career. Throughout the film Hanks is wonderful, embodying the adage that the brave man is someone who fights through his own fear. Rich Phillips is terrified, but he does what he must to keep his ship and his crew safe; as the situation grows ever tenser and tenser he begins to realize that he’s not getting out of it alive, and Hanks brings us through the steps of that emotional journey without ever saying anything out loud. It’s a powerful performance that gets tied up in his final scene, a shock-induced breakdown that is the best work Hanks has ever done. Hell, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s one of the best pieces of acting I have ever seen in a movie, a moment of pure realism and honesty and gaping emotional openness.
That emotional openness doesn’t mean sentimentality. There’s no sentimentality in Captain Phillips. Yes, Phillips has a family back home, but there are no cutaways to them. They barely get brought up until the very end. Muse’s situation is presented starkly and honestly but without a condescending overreach. Instead of sentiment Greengrass packs his film with humanity - each of these men is a complex human being, driven by needs and fears, and the director is interested in how those colliding needs and fears escalates the situation far out of control.
What’s remarkable is that Greengrass finds the space for humanity in the middle of what is surely the most intense movie of the year. I knew the true story of the Alabama hijacking walking in and I was still tense and shuddering throughout the entire third act, where Greengrass ratchets up the pressure, making everything even more claustrophobic. Throughout the film Greengrass’ camera gets tighter and tighter on the characters, creating more urgency. By the end, when the pirates and Phillips are adrift in a tiny lifeboat, every shot - even medium ones - feels jammed directly in your face. You’re in as tight as they are, as breathless as they are, as scared as they are. When the camera pulls back to show the Navy ships trailing the lifeboat you are smacked by the immensity of it all.
Dropped into this tenseness is the terrifying coldness of the Navy SEALs. Presented without comment, with almost no dialogue, they operate with icy professionalism that is far scarier than the worked-up freak-outs of the pirates. As the situation in the lifeboat falls apart the SEALs maintain absolute calmness. Where Muse and his men have identities, the SEALs are as anonymous as the waves that buffet the boats. Greengrass is clearly impressed by their professional precision, but also unwilling to lionize them. It’s a tricky balance, and I suspect it’s one the SEALs themselves would appreciate.
I found myself having actual physical reactions throughout Captain Phillips. I shook. I jerked. I may have let out a whimper. And I definitely choked up in Hanks’ final scene. Paul Greengrass is, without a doubt, one of the finest filmmakers working today and when he finds a story like this - one that speaks directly to the struggle between power structures and classes and ideals and to the human beings caught in the middle of them - he is able to craft a movie that easily sits as one of the year’s best. No other film I have seen this year has the sort of visceral gut-wrenching terror and deep, complex humanity that Greengrass brings to Captain Phillips. In a career littered with highlights, this is one of his best.