A single scene can’t make a bad movie into a good movie, but it is possible to transform a good movie into one that’s near-great. At the very end of Captain Phillips, the new docudrama about a 2009 encounter between an American-owned freighter ship and a small band of Somali pirates, director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray choose to extend the film one crucial scene past the point when most fictions and fictionalizations of this sort would end. Audiences have been well-trained to view the culmination of whatever critical situation that drives the plot as the proper end of the story, but these filmmakers know that a deep, dark plunge creates rough water that can stretch for miles. The devastating final minutes of Captain Phillips not only carry their own impact, but cast everything that preceded it, already harrowing material, in even starker terms. There’s now no denying the power of the story. Greengrass and Ray make sure of that.
Actually, Tom Hanks does, too. The actor plays Richard Phillips as a fairly no-nonsense skipper of the massive ship, growing curtly passive aggressive when he feels the crewman are dawdling too lunch during their break. There’s a resolute level-headedness to the character and the actor, especially once the pirates have taken over his ship. Phillips doesn’t suddenly become an action hero, nor does he exhibit a preternatural ability to outthink his adversaries. He does, however, keep trying, and Hanks shows him operating with little more than a somewhat skilled everyman’s ingenuity. He is simply a guy doing his job. It just so happens that the job has gotten more difficult than it ever should have been. That’s a concept that carries through the entire film, applying to other sailors on Phillips’s ship and even some of the Somali pirates, who are clearly in over their heads in a illicit profession that they feel is the only choice they have given the dire circumstances at home. It’s one of many parallels drawn between the two crews and the two captains, the sense that they are trapped in circumstances beyond their reasonable reckoning. When Phillips briefly berates his crew for complaining about the dangers in the journey–they are workers and not military men, after all–it is later echoed by the leader of the Somali pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). It’s a measure of the relative subtlety of the filmmakers that Phillips overhears this familiar exchange, but doesn’t understand it because it’s in a language foreign to his ears, depriving the narrative of the epiphanic moment of understanding the similarities that exist between the opposing forces. That would be too easy, and Captain Phillips, whatever it is, definitely isn’t built to take the easiest route.
This film presents Greengrass in the mode that suits him best, hunkered down with the mechanics of real-life travails. As was the case with his brave, excellent United 93, Greengrass is more interested in the simple, tense ways people respond to crisis than in whipping up some sort of motivating backstory. Greengrass realizes that the more mundane the situation–more than anything, Phillips simply follows procedure throughout the film–the more relatable it will be, and that will make it far more gripping than some sort of trumped up drama. It’s when Greengrass slips into considerations of greater conspiracies and easy villainy (as he did with his last film, Green Zone) that he loses his focus and, therefore, his impact. Captain Phillips is instead an example of Greengrass at his best: lean, committed and, best of all, willing to show every last repercussion of the situation he depicts.