CAPTAIN PHILLIPS shouldn't be as good as it is. It's a big studio picture, based on an inspirational true story, starring one of the world's hugest movie stars, directed by a guy most famous for his Bourne movies: Broken into pieces, Captain Phillips should be mass-market sap. But it's the opposite of that: lean and smart and intense, it's a film that's happy to kick you in the stomach to make a point.
The broad strokes: Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, who captained the shipping vessel Maersk Alabama in 2009 on what was supposed to be a routine trip around the Horn of Africa. It wasn't routine: Somali pirates took the ship, and then took Phillips as a hostage. And in Captain Phillips, it's in the details where things get interesting and blurry. Not satisfied with telling the story from Phillips' white, American perspective, Director Paul Greengrass also follows the life and the motives of Muse (Barkhad Abdi, excellent), who hijacks the Alabama with a tiny crew and desperate determination.
Considering Captain Phillips is based on Phillips' memoir, it's hardly surprising he comes off well here—overwhelmed and outgunned, he's still clever and determined to do whatever he can to save his crew. It's to Hanks' credit, though, that Phillips also comes across as vulnerable and scared: He's a man handling a terrifying situation as best he can, and who's also aware that his best won't be good enough. Phillips and Muse are strong men, standing in stark opposition to each other—but both are also subject to the guns pointed at them, to the brutally unpredictable effects of globalization and racism, to the twitchy reflexes of their lizard brains.
On the surface, Greengrass' film tracks, with jarring intensity, the hijacking of the Alabama and the capture of Phillips. But more than anything, it's about consequences. The hijacking is a consequence. Phillips and Muse's actions have consequences. And when the time comes, Greengrass doesn't cut away when Hollywood usually does: Captain Phillips doesn't end until we've seen the consequences.