Director Paul Greengrass is probably best known for his Jason Bourne action pics with Matt Damon, but his best movies have actually been based on real-life events, movies like "Bloody Sunday" and most especially "United 93."
In that latter movie, he took a story all-too-well-known, one of the fatal 9/11 hijackings, and managed to create a gripping, tense thriller out of it. And not a thriller for thrills' sake, but a thrill that added more than a little insight into the awful experiences of that day.
"United 93" was a near minute-by-minute account of that fateful flight from the point of view of the passengers, the terrorists, the flight crew and the air traffic controllers on the ground. It didn't trivialize events by creating overblown Hollywood heroes and outsized villains. For the most part, Greengrass let the characters involved unfold as naturally as possible. The lack of "heightened effects" made the drama all the more powerful.
Greengrass does something very similar in "Captain Phillips," his new fact-based film. It recounts the well-publicized raid by a handful of Somali pirates of a U.S. cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, in the spring 2009.
Tom Hanks plays Captain Phillips, an ordinary man who finds himself in a nightmare situation. His enormous ship (with its crew of twenty) suddenly finds itself at the mercy of a quartet of scruffy, scrawny young men armed with little more than AK-47's and a lifetime of desperation.
The movie does an excellent job depicting the operational component of both the raid and the rescue attempt - you can see how a single tiny skiff is able to attack a giant cargo ship, you can see how an unarmed captain held at gunpoint can still affect events in his favor, and you can see how the U.S. military responds to a hostage crisis (a combination of overwhelming force and precision marksmanship.)
The film has a kind of teeter-totter structure. Early on, the balance seems tipped in favor of the Somali raiders - they have all the guns and the Captain and his crew are virtually defenseless. But as the film goes on, and the U.S. military flexes its mighty muscle, it teeters in the other direction.
Eventually two warships, an aircraft carrier, and a contingent of Navy Seals surround on a single lifeboat containing Captain Phillips and his four captors.
Life inside the covered lifeboat is unbearably tense. And this is where the film earns its acclaim. The pirates are allowed a shred of humanity. They're more than just the villains.
"I can't give up," one of the pirates tells Hanks. "It was supposed to be easy. I take ship, ransom, nobody gets hurt."
"There's got to be something other than kidnapping people," says Hanks.
"Maybe in America," the captor replies.
Captain Phillips naturally has our sympathies (heck, he's played by Tom Hanks for Pete's sake!) but that the film is willing to treat the pirates with at least a modicum of understanding speaks to its finely tuned sensibility.
I know the film is called "Captain Phillips," and Tom Hanks is very good as a kind of understated hero, but I found the pirates and their plight even more interesting. I realize a film titled "Muse," the name of the lead pirate, probably wouldn't make a dime, but the actor who plays him (a Minneapolis Somali man named Barkhad Abdi) is so good, it might have made an even better movie. As it is though, "Captain Phillips" still succeeds as something more than just a thriller. It's a thriller with the context of a clash between two distinct cultures, the haves and the have-nots.