Courage Under Water: A Real-Life Tale of Somali Piracy Unspooled With Gripping Force

Tom Hanks as hostage and hero in title role

Tom Hanks stars in 'Captain Phillips.'
Tom Hanks stars in ‘Captain Phillips.’

Despite a running time of more than two hours and minus the kind of explosive violence that keeps action buffs yelling for more, Captain Phillips, the true story of the 2009 crisis at sea in which Somali pirates hijacked the unarmed U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama and held Captain Richard Phillips of Vermont as a hostage, makes for a gripping, seamlessly staged film that is certain to win Tom Hanks another Oscar nomination in the title role.

With a screenplay by Billy Ray and cogent, realistic direction by the talented Paul Greengrass—who won praise for United 93, as well as combustible thrillers The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum—the movie is based on Capt. Phillips’s book, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. Equally adept at building factual, documentary-style excitement and investigating the human elements behind headline events, Mr. Greengrass is the perfect director to juxtapose the harrowing experience of a peaceful civilian merchant mariner taken prisoner on his own ship with the motives of the economically deprived and desperate pirate who masterminds the ransom plot (played with tense ferocity by novice Somali actor Barkhad Abdi). By the time this emotionally draining film reaches its resolution, you feel like you know them both, as well as the crews who follow their orders.

The film stretches from a pristine colonial house in New England, where Captain Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener, in a small but vital cameo) talk about domestic issues on their way to the airport, to Solalah, Oman, where the captain boards the Alabama to transport 2,400 tons of cargo, including food and medical supplies, through the pirate-infested Somali basin on its way to Mombasa, Kenya. The mammoth freighter is in the middle of its first security drill when the crew on the bridge first spots the approaching skiffs, loaded with weapons. Armed with nothing but water hoses for defense, Captain Phillips faces an ordeal that requires cunning and courage beyond expectation. When the terrorists finally leave the ship in one tiny orange lifeboat, taking the captain with them as a hostage, the film switches gears, and the setting is reduced from the open water to the claustrophobia of capture. Bloody and near death, an ordinary man tests every strength he didn’t know he had before three giant American warships and an anti-piracy task force of Navy SEALS arrive, bringing the film’s long-awaited action with them. There’s a lot of talk between the big scenes, which might inspire restlessness among audiences expecting more. The transfer, the tow, the exchange and the orders by telephone are elaborately detailed, and it all gets tedious. But the lull is temporary, and, under the trigger-ready direction of Paul Greengrass, everything pays off handsomely in a series of well-timed encounters that keep you on the edge of your seat. A lot of it is improvised, including the ending in the infirmary, featuring a number of nonactors who interact with the two-time Oscar-winning star like seasoned pros.

Mr. Hanks, in yet another in a long line of diverse character studies, does a beautiful job as the voice of reason and logic, trying to inspire bravery and maintain order amid the noise and panic. In the big emotional scenes, as well as the small, nerve-jangling scenes, he is an artist at the top of his skill. It’s a different kind of role for him, but he matches the epic scale of conflict at sea with the intimacy of an ordinary guy’s most private feelings in ways that are truly memorable. Add Mr. Hanks’s ocean survival in Captain Phillips to Robert Redford’s hair-raising adventure as a single sailor adrift in the path of an apocalyptic storm at sea in the forthcoming All Is Lost, and you have two of the most powerful and absorbing competitions for Best Actor awards you will see this year.

DIRECTED BY: Paul Greengrass
STARRING: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi and Barkhad Abdirahman
RUNNING TIME: 134 min.
RATING: 3.5/4

Courage Under Water: A Real-Life Tale of Somali Piracy Unspooled With Gripping Force