The ads and the title make “Captain Phillips” out to be a true-life hero story, but the film’s reality is less glamorous and, for that reason, more compelling.
Based on the real Phillips’ firsthand account of the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009, “Phillips” drills us with suspense but refuses easy resolution. Coming from the director who helmed two of the three “Bourne” films, the spy series that popularized the queasy cam as a viable action movie aesthetic, we expect and get nothing less than smart, pithy action. When Somali pirates board Phillips’ cargo ship, the ensuing battle of wits is riveting. The movie exploits the ship’s many levels and side rooms, creating a dense, claustrophobic stage on which tension can explode.
Despite all this, “Phillips” bears more of a resemblance to the politically minded, albeit inferior, “Green Zone” than to our favorite amnesiac’s car chases and fistfights. Phillips is a resourceful man, but he’s no Jason Bourne, and this film is no action flick. The striking opening sequences present Phillips and pirate ringleader Abduwali Muse in parallel not as good and evil, but as two seafaring men trying to make a living. Playing these two characters, both Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi deliver powerfully nuanced performances. Neither outshines the other. They stand toe-to-toe as two captains trying to navigate troubled waters.
As the movie progresses, Phillips becomes less and less of an active agent and more of a passenger to the unfolding events. He is our point of identification — not as a savior, but as a fellow witness to a screwed-up world where Somali pirates are forced by circumstance to rob cargo ships and the American Navy, though well-intentioned, embodies the socioeconomic imbalance that extends beyond national boundaries. The moral and political ambivalence echoes the film’s tagline as well as a personal remark Phillips makes at the start of the movie: “Out here, survival is everything.” It encapsulates the film’s overarching lament for an imperfect society where there are so few heroes and so many victims. In such an environment, perhaps all we can do is fight to survive.
Jeng is a member of the class of 2016.