Those readers who habitually skip past the review to see how many stars a movie has earned might be muttering to themselves about now: Didn’t she just give four stars to “Gravity”? Now “Captain Phillips”? Has she gone that soft?
No, the movies have gotten that good.
“Captain Phillips,” a taut, finely crafted, superbly acted maritime thriller, is just one of a wave of fabulous films heading our way. It’s autumn, my friends, a time of falling leaves and soaring cinematic standards. Hallelujah, and pass the buttered popcorn.
The two principal artists involved with “Captain Phillips” go a long way in explaining why it works so well: Paul Greengrass, the exacting British director behind such masterpieces as “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” — as well as a couple of movies with the name “Bourne” in the title — is behind the camera. Tom Hanks — who needs no introduction — is in front of it, in this case playing a modest, hard-nosed merchant mariner who in 2009 was hijacked and kidnapped by Somali criminals while his ship was delivering commercial goods, water, food and fuel to Kenya. As “Captain Phillips” opens, Richard Phillips is driving from his pretty Vermont farmhouse to the airport, chatting with his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), who sends him off with a perfunctory “Have a safe trip.”
It won’t be, as anyone knows who recalls the harrowing five-day ordeal of the real-life Capt. Phillips, who calmly ensured the safety of his crew and then continued to keep his wits about him while being held captive in a cramped lifeboat.
“Captain Phillips” is based on his memoir of the event, which was widely reported in newspapers and on television. But Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) go one step further, introducing viewers to the poverty, desperation and cynicism that converge to lead four Somali fishermen to go to work for a warlord, attacking container ships and absconding with their cargo. High on khat and armed to the teeth, the particular thieves in question are led by a charismatic young man named Muse (the terrific newcomer Barkhad Abdi), who, once he boards the enormous Maersk Alabama, vies with Phillips for control. “I’m the captain now,” he declares at one point.
Once again collaborating with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Greengrass hews to a familiar visual style, immersing viewers in the rhythms of Phillips’s day and familiarizing them with the labyrinthine vessel that doesn’t resemble a boat as much as a vast floating office. (Like Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander,” “Captain Phillips” offers a fascinating tutorial in the humming, hive-like organization of a working sea craft.) Once two tiny skiffs show up — first as a radar blip, then as bobbing, barely distinct omens of oncoming danger — the filmmakers keep “Captain Phillips” on its even keel, allowing the tension to ratchet up organically, rather than by way of self-conscious editing or manipulative music cues. What larger messages “Captain Phillips” conveys — about globalization, consumerism and the clash of radically different supply chains — are delivered deftly rather than with ham-handed polemic; the fact that Phillips was delivering food aid to Africa may be seen by some as a grievous irony and by others as a cruel case study in how foreign aid exacerbates dependence and poverty throughout the continent.
Greengrass’s straightforward style not only keeps “Captain Phillips” from didacticism, but it also is perfectly suited to its protagonist — a bespectacled, by-the-book guy who runs a tight ship, literally and metaphorically. Hanks, who has made something of an art of playing real-life characters, submerges his usual Everyman charm and instead plays up his Everyman blandness, allowing Phillips’s sober, quick-thinking character to emerge through behavior rather than stirring speeches or swashbuckling set pieces. The result is a study in movement and action that is as purely cinematic as “Gravity,” a film that may be more far-reaching in its location and visuals, but portrays isolation, dire straits and the wages of Manifest Destiny with similar white-knuckled intensity.
“Captain Phillips” is such an impressive dramatic achievement that it comes as a shock when it gets even better, during a devastating final scene in which Hanks single-handedly dismantles Hollywood notions of macho heroism in one shattering, virtually wordless sequence. That moment, as purely emotional as what went before has been kinetic, makes “Captain Phillips” yet another Greengrass masterpiece. And it reveals why there have been so many: Behind the director’s dispassionate, unfailingly rigorous lens lies an enormous, unfailingly compassionate heart.
★ ★ ★ ★
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images and substance use.