Captain Phillips’ makes real-life danger into suspenseful drama

Tom Hanks plays the noble, pragmatic titular role in “Captain Phillips.”

Three and a half stars

Captain Phillips Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

When he made Green Zone in 2010, director Paul Greengrass attempted to fuse the Hollywood-style excitement of his Jason Bourne films (the second and third in the series) with his naturalistic, you-are-there depiction of real-world events in movies like Bloody Sunday and United 93. The result fell short both as a thriller and as social commentary, but Greengrass does a much better job of fusing the two aims in Captain Phillips, based on the real-life hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates in 2009. More polished and crowd-pleasing than Greengrass’ earlier adaptations of recent history, Captain Phillips works as a straightforward thriller better than it does as an examination of complex political issues, although it does manage to raise a few troubling questions.

Mostly it serves as hero worship of the title character, played by Tom Hanks as perhaps the most noble, pragmatic and level-headed guy who ever lived. The movie is based on the real Phillips’ memoir, so it’s not surprising that he comes across well, but even Hanks can’t do much with material like the early scene in which Phillips comforts his wife (Catherine Keener in a glorified cameo) about their family’s future and apologizes for his frequent long trips abroad. Once the movie boards the cargo ship Maersk Alabama along with Phillips, it mostly leaves sentimentality behind in favor of a methodical depiction of how the ship was taken over by a quartet of pirates, led by the charismatic Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi).

As Phillips tries desperately to keep the pirates from discovering his hidden crew and taking them hostage, Greengrass crafts a series of brutally tense moments, playing up the dynamic between the avuncular Phillips and the menacing Muse. The movie’s second half finds Phillips trapped in a tiny life boat with the four pirates, as the full resources of the U.S. Navy are put into play to rescue him. Seeing Phillips’ wife at the beginning of the movie might create the expectation of teary homefront scenes to come, but Greengrass wisely steers clear of any temptation for easy heartstring-tugging (nor does he throw in any American news reporting or political maneuvering). By sticking to the action at sea (on the Alabama, the life boat and the Navy vessels), Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray are able to keep the story focused and immediate, and Greengrass mixes his familiar shaky-cam style with some sweeping helicopter shots of the sea and ships, emphasizing the intimacy of the personal interactions and the vast natural expanse in which they take place.

At a certain point, heading toward the two-hour mark, all of that sustained tension loses a bit of its power, thanks to the inevitability of the outcome (it is, after all, a true story). But just as it seems that Greengrass is gearing up for a big Hollywood finish, he finally shows some cracks in Phillips’ unflappability, via the kind of scene that most against-all-odds true stories would leave out. Although Captain Phillips is primarily a rousing thriller, it succeeds most when it adds an undercurrent of discomfort.

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