Based on an account by the title character and more important, on recent events, "Captain Phillips" confronts some compelling contemporary issues in both subject and method. To begin with, the picture belongs to that increasingly popular genre, the docudrama, which shows actual events in a somewhat fictionalized form, like the Iranian hostage crisis in "Argo" or the Bush administration's betrayal of the CIA operative Valerie Plame in "Fair Game." Along with their close cousin, the documentary, such films serve to report on matters that the mainstream, allegedly liberal media neglect or even ignore.
The new movie portrays the ordeal of Richard Phillips, captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, boarded by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean in 2009. Aside from showing at some length his courage in the face of brutality, it also shows a cinematic version of the new face of piracy, no longer the swashbuckling adventures of Errol Flynn or the horror-film excesses of the Johnny Depp movies, but a violent, profitable, and decidedly unromantic endeavor practiced by desperate young men from the Horn of Africa.
Presumably in the interests of fairness and even compassion, the director initially intercuts between Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his captors. Phillips goes about his customary preparations for a command, packing, discussing problems with his wife, departing for the shipyard, checking out the condition of his ship, and so forth. In Somalia a warlord of some kind, with a gang of armed thugs, recruits some impoverished young men in a seaside village, really a group of hovels, for a raid on any ship they can find sailing alone and therefore susceptible to an attack.
From that point, the movie proceeds according to a kind of implacable fate, as the crew of the Maersk Alabama discover the presence of two fast boats approaching their enormous vessel and attempt everything they can to repel the attackers. The audience understands and anticipates the course of a known series of events, which paradoxically in no way diminishes the suspense and tension of "Captain Phillips." Sometimes, equally paradoxically, nothing is more surprising than the expected.
Much of the picture proceeds like a documentary, grounding the action in innumerable details of the ship's operation, as the camera traverses the length and depth of the huge ship, about the size of an apartment building, showing all the high-tech navigation and communication instruments, the various measures of defense, and yet the surprising vulnerability of the craft. In contrast, inhabitants of a terribly poor region, barely a nation, lacking the military equipment of the West, the pirates possess automatic weapons, communicate with their mother ship, a fishing trawler, via two-way radio, eavesdrop on the captain's own messages, and even use radar to track their target. Most important, despite all the efforts of the captain and his crew, they succeed in their mission.
The actors, all of them except the star unfamiliar names and faces, convey an entirely convincing authenticity, appropriate for the documentary feel of the movie; no one on the ship's crew or the Somali gang seems to be acting. The rapid camera cuts, tight close-ups, and the incessant screaming of the pirates intensify the claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and desperation on the lifeboat that his captors use to escape with Captain Phillips. That lifeboat, incidentally, nicely underlines the advances in nautical technology — it's a swift, nifty little craft crammed with survival gear, not the rubber raft of the World War II submarine flicks.
Whatever his skills at light comedy and breezy dialogue, Tom Hanks demonstrates a genuine depth as the protagonist, an ordinary man trying to save his ship, his crew, and himself from a gang of heavily armed, irrational, and very jittery thugs. He tries to reason with them, endures mistreatment, all the while demonstrating credible courage without a hint of heroic posturing; it's a powerful, controlled performance.
It's worth noting that the attack presented Barack Obama with his first foreign policy crisis and that the Navy SEALs responded brilliantly. It's also worth noting that Rush Limbaugh, the GOP pope, reported that President Obama ordered the killing of three unarmed black teenagers who were trying to surrender, initiating the stream of hatred and falsehoods that sustains the opposition to this day.