Richard Phillips is a name that might elude most people, even those vaguely familiar with the 2009 hijacking incident involving an American cargo ship by Somali pirates.
That should change with the arrival of Captain Phillips, a taut true-life adventure that chronicles the high-seas heroism of Phillips, whose courage allowed his entire crew and cargo to survive the attack unscathed.
That knowledge of the outcome won’t compromise the enjoyment of this suspenseful and emotionally powerful glimpse into recent history from director Paul Greengrass (Flight 93).
Tom Hanks stars in the title role, as an experienced mariner leading the MV Maersk Alabama on its voyage carrying 17 metric tons of cargo through the Gulf of Aden, more than 200 miles off the coast of Somalia. Phillips is concerned in advance about possible pirate attacks, running his 20-man crew through drills before a skiff containing four armed pirates gradually closes in.
With no weapons on board to repel the attack, the intruders board the ship by climbing a ladder and quickly begin looking for potential hostages. Phillips becomes their target, and negotiations aim for his release while waiting for help to arrive.
Hanks, adopting a New England accent, quietly demonstrates a superb balance of strength and vulnerability in his portrayal of Phillips, whose attempts to mask his fear by showing confidence and bravery are slowly broken down.
Greengrass employs his usual hand-held cameras, which combine with the undulating ocean waves to create an appropriately gritty and uneasy visual texture. The film remains tightly focused and transitions seamlessly between the breathtaking sequence in which the pirates first board the ship and take hostages, to the more cerebral chess game that follows, to the negotiations and standoff involving Navy SEALS that showcase military heroism without going overboard.
The film is based on a book co-written by Phillips, and although the screenplay by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) feels embellished in spots, it maintains a consistent level of tension throughout. The film demonstrates more than just casual knowledge of nautical terminology, and also gives some context to the motives of the desperate pirates, who live in poverty in Somalia.
The real-life incident drew some criticism from those who said Phillips inadvertently steered the ship into dangerous waters. Such details aren’t as relevant in this even-handed biopic that’s both meticulously crafted and conventionally thrilling.
Rated PG-13, 134 minutes.