Directed by Paul Greengrass
Billions of dollars in box-office booty later, there was reason to fear that Johnny Depp had permanently tarnished the image of pirates. But Paul Greengrass’s latest exercise in procedural history restores them to their full inglorious potential in the modern age—as scrawny vicious teenagers with guns and hair-trigger tempers, up against a freighter’s captain and union crew. A hostage story bent on inflicting narrative cul-de-sacs, Captain Phillips keeps the dread alive for its two-hour-plus running time and no-way-out maritime setting, ultimately putting even its star through the wringer as never before.
The movie runs through the check-list of the ship’s departure and progress without flagging foreboding details—unless you count the parallel editing that tracks the Somali pirates as they band together and set out in ramshackle speedboats. Even though we know the pirates (played by nonprofessionals) will breach the ship’s defenses, the playing out of the asymmetrical warfare is still anxiety-inducing, maybe more so because we know it’s inevitable (as in Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday or United 93). The suspense from scene to scene has a push-pull quality: the game-theory face-offs pit the logic of greed against dumb-kid-soldier anger and nerves, with Tom Hanks’s captain always on the edge of being too clever, or simply—and humanly—afraid.
Billy Ray’s screenplay, adapted from the real Phillips’s book A Captain’s Duty, enters a different phase when the cavalry arrives; the US military, responding to distress calls in this no-man’s-land off the shore of government-free Somalia. Here a familiar problem arises: a proceduralist like Greengrass is fascinated by The Professionals, lending these granite-faced (and poker-faced) elite forces an inevitable heroism. But after the long day of the hijacking comes a longer night, with an even more cramped setting, and, in what perhaps clinches the movie, Hanks exposed as a vulnerable body like any other.
Opens October 11