"Maybe in America."

Captain Phillips
(USA, 134 min.)
Dir. Paul Greengrass, Writ. Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali.
Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' Captain Phillips. 
Photo: Jasin Boland. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
“Maybe in America. Maybe in America,” drawls Muse (Barkhad Abdi) the pirate captain as he trains a gun on his hostage, American Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), who is trying to persuade the Somali that there must be more to life than fishing and kidnapping people. “Maybe in America.” The line is of memorable significance in the decidedly American Captain Phillips, helmed by Brit director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) and scripted by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games). There’s an undercurrent of critique that only rises to the surface of this seaward thriller thanks to Muse’s provocative musing. It’s mostly superficial rhetoric, though, amidst Captain Phillips’s true-life saga of gung-ho heroism and idealism in the face of adversity.

Hanks stars as Captain Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship the MV Maersk Alabama was hijacked off the coast of Somali in 2009. Hanks has been somewhat off his game lately with the recent duds of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Cloud Atlas, but his captivating performance as the stalwart, yet fallible Captain ranks as one of his best. Phillips is a return to form for Hanks.

The role of the real-life Captain plays nicely to Hanks’ persona as the American everyman. He’s Jollier than Santa Claus in almost any scenario—even with a Tommy gun in Road to Perdition, Hanks is the nicest guy in the film. The final moments of Captain Phillips, however, are a remarkable feat for Hanks as his voyage with the Somali pirates enters the water of Kathryn Bigelow-ish suspense. Hanks releases the tension of the finale much like Jessica Chastain does in that bravura final shot of Zero Dark Thirty: It’s a feat of emotionally-charged acting that conveys all the shock, fear, and pressure that Phillips has kept in check during the ordeal.

Captain Phillips is firmly anchored by Hanks’ turn, but this big production is a case where the Captain is much stronger than the ship. Hanks’ likability ensures that the audience is on edge as viewers wait for the film’s inevitable outcome. The film is based on a book co-authored by Phillips himself, so there’s never any doubt that Captain America will come ashore safely. The film has very little conflict for a film with hostage missions on the high seas.

Muse might remind the audience that there is something about the American way of doing things that spins the tide in wayward directions. Captain Phillips takes only the most action-heavy, and therefore most cinematic, moments of story in its dramatization of the hijacking. Not once does the film cut to Phillips’s family at home. (Catherine Keener appears as Phillips’s wife in a fleeting introduction.) It’s just Hanks and the pirates for much of the film’s long 134 minutes.

The spectacle of Captain Phillips might seem especially noticeable when framed against this year’s other marine hostage drama, A Hijacking. A Hijacking, a Danish production, omits the riveting ordeal of the actual hostage-taking that comprises the bulk of Phillips’s first half. A Hijacking is twice the white-knuckle affair, though, even though it is mostly an affair of trying to find resolution about the irreconcilable greed of both the pirates and the Capitalist suits trying to get their men back with as good as a deal as possible. A Hijacking sets up the dramatic action so that the crux of the film lies on the transaction in which both parties of the negotiation are trading the hijacked men like nickels and dimes.

A Hijacking omits the conflict that immediately—and arguably rightfully—aligns the audience with Captain Phillips during the drama. Nothing justifies the pirates’ actions, but the film throws in some  mild allusions to Western idealism—making it big by rising to the top and being the hero—as a dream that has tainted the likes of Muse, who makes an act of war on American capitalism and trade by piracy. “I’m the Captain now,” Muse quips when he assumes control of the bridge like a gangster in an old Hollywood film.

The hero-foe dynamic of the onscreen hostage-taking invites inevitable racial politics into Captain Phillips, whereas A Hijacking never pits the pirates as mean of villains as the Danish suits. The film nevertheless offers one mean one-note bloodthirsty pirate to offer some cackling villainy. One pirate serves mostly as filler. Then there is Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), the token nice pirate whose youth and kindness convey to Captain Phillips an understanding that the actions of the pirates are wrong. Bilal embodies a character that nitpicky readers might call The Noble Savage. He tries to do the right thing at just the right time to earn some redemption and thus act as a credit to his race.

Then, finally, there is Muse. Muse, played by Abdi with compelling self-awareness and calculated mania, is a worthy foil for Captain Phillips. He is an underdog wanting to become the Captain of the ship. Captain Phillips even gives some early exposition to Muse’s story to show him treated like the runt of the litter by his fellow pirates and thus eager to prove himself a leader and provider. Muse is taken to justice, though, under the same gangster movie philosophy that playing outside the rules is no way to reach the top. “Maybe in America,” he thinks, searching for a foreign pot of gold that he can only dream of attaining. The quartet of renegade fishermen cover all the bases that Captain Phillips needs to inject an element of xenophobia to keep the audience at home in suspense and to balance off any charges that the film itself is racist—it gives one pirate a back story and makes another somewhat redeemed. A fifty-fifty trade. Since it is based on a true story, though, there is no changing the fact that Phillips is Caucasian and the four pirates are Somali.

Captain Phillips does its best to float in spite of the muddy waters of its racial politics. It’s a mostly solid thriller thanks to Paul Greengrass’s taut, gritty style, which somewhat overdoes his signature hyper-handheld camerawork. The film is dizzying to the point of seasickness. The cinematography of Captain Phillips feels markedly anti-Hollywood though, thus giving the film an energy that doesn’t always jive with mainstream studio aesthetic and with the classical heroism of the story. The Captain is consistently compelling, though, and Hanks’ performance does Phillips a great deal of justice.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Captain Phillips is now playing in wide release.