March 2009, and in Vermont a cargo ship captain, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is preparing to set off on another voyage, bidding farewell to his wife (Catherine Keener) as he drives to the airport, and having a conversation with her about the way the modern world is progressing at ever faster rates, so you have to keep up if you're not going to be left in the dust. Someone all too aware of that is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who lives in Somalia; he should have been a fisherman, but circumstances have dictated that he assist the local gang lords instead by taking to the seas off the coast for a life of piracy. These two men are about to meet with major repercussions for them both...
Captain Phillips was yet another of those films of the twenty-first century that took a real incident and constructed a story around it that could feature a star, in this case Tom Hanks, performing a showcase of acting to illustrate their way with behaving as a mere mortal would. Following hot on the heels of the likes of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty and indeed his own United 93, director Paul Greengrass added his accustomed social conscience to the mix, and before you knew it he had a hit on his hands, though quite how many audiences regarded it as a gung ho endorsement of American foreign policy and how many saw it as a valid criticism of the global problem affecting millions of impoverished who saw no direction out of their poverty than to turn to crime was debatable.
What was clear to all who watched it was Hanks giving another superb performance, and this at a stage in his career where he could have comfortably coasted through some light drama or middle-aged romcom. He was nothing short of brilliant at bringing to life a figure who in real life was the source of some controversy, as Phillips was sued for placing his crew in needless peril, and all for financial profit. Although you could see him as a hero in this movie context, this was by no means a whitewash; in early scenes he is shown to be none too popular with that crew thanks to a cavalier attitude to their peace of mind which bears bitter fruit when the cargo ship they are piloting off the Somalian coast is hijacked by pirates, led by Abdi's Muse.
Funnily enough Abdi secured a lot of the attention for his role, plucked from obscurity to command the screen as the pirate with mixed feelings, and more than up to the challenge of matching the far more experienced Hanks; he made it look so easy that in select points when you realise just how good he is it's enough to take you aback: "I'm the Captain now". His repeated phrase that everything is going to be all right rings ever more hollow as the situation grows increasingly dire, but interestingly Greengrass approached this as one of his action movies, so while there were scenes of tension, there were just as many sequences where the high octane direction more implemented in the kind of modern blockbuster that would allow an ageing star to strut their stuff as a man of action, except this had the added cachet of being based on a genuine incident.
In spite of warnings about the treacherous nature of the Somalian coast, Captain Phillips ploughs ahead - apparently in real life if he'd spent more of the company's funds on fuel and stayed further off that coast then the ship would have had far less bother with gun-wielding criminals trying to board them. Yet part of the theme of the film is how Phillips becomes a hero of sorts out of necessity rather than intent, and once the pirates have caught up he does orchestrate an almost successful way of getting rid of them: almost, as the second half details how the Captain was taken hostage and the much of the rest is set in the cramped surroundings of the lifeboat, a none too subtle allusion to the darkly ambiguous "We're all in this together" issues of globalisation. The pirates are depicted as victims of circumstance as much as they are masters of their own destiny, which you can channel into a sympathy for them as well as sympathy for Phillips' crisis, but one thing was for sure, that final act was so emotionally intense, even shattering, to suggest dark days ahead when force is the only solution. Music by Henry Jackman.