The pirates are formidable, especially their leader Muse (played impressively by first-time actor and Somali immigrant Barkhad Abdi) who – despite his wiry frame – strikes fear with an intelligence that matches his determination. Phillips must be intuitive moment-to-moment, discerning when to deceive, when to tell the truth, and how to communicate a code through his word choices that give tactical directives to crew members, all in the hopes of setting possible traps for Muse and his gang.

Having that mental chess game at play in the midst of extremely fragile life-and-death stakes engages us on all fronts: mentally, emotionally, psychologically. The best-faith attempts by Phillips and his crew to overcome their captors result in a mix of success and failure – but even the momentary victories are compounded by unpredictable ripple effects. At some point, trying to outwit an enemy that is itself volatile leads to unintended consequences.

For as much as the initial attack involves Phillips and his crew, the film earns its singular title when events turn in such a way that the bulk of the threat and the responsibility to mitigate it rests solely on Phillips. For as strong as he remains, we also start to see cracks in his thinking. Not all the choices he makes are good ones, and at times he acts irrationally. Given the burden of his circumstance it's not surprising that his clarity eventually starts to break down.

Hanks carries the weight of all this with a control that is both intellectual and primal, but one that also succumbs to a brittle state of humanity. It's the type of engaging dramatic arc we've come to expect and appreciate from the two-time Oscar winner, enabling him to carry the heft of a heavy film even as his New England brogue isn't entirely credible.

It'd be a stretch (and even reductive) to say that Greengrass makes a "thinking man's" action flick. He's more of a pure storyteller, observing honestly rather than making dogmatic statements. If anything, Greengrass understands the counter-intuitive truth that authenticity is much more provocative than commentary. This allows his films to remain morally-centered while avoiding judgments or pat answers. In Captain Phillips, he deftly avoids taking geo-political positions. Greengrass simply presents the realities, and then harnesses the powers of cinema (rather than cheap demagoguery) to make us wrestle with them.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Cigarettes, eating khat leaves to get high.
  • Language/Profanity: Two S-words, one A-word, and one use of the Lord’s name in vain.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: None.
  • Violence/Other: Gun use, gun-related violence and threat of violence throughout. People could be killed at any moment. Man hit in head with the butt of a gun, bloodied. Man hit in head with a chain, bloodied. Man’s feet severely cut up by broken glass, bloodied and wounded. A man is stabbed with a spear-like weapon. A man is severely beaten. People are shot and killed, at one point with a bloody and gruesome aftermath.

Publication date: October 11, 2013