We know what to do with heroes in America. Because our culture is so very good at repackaging real-life sagas to fit our infinite screens, the media rewards of a little guy who does something big are understood. There will be talk show appearances. There will be a best-selling book. And there will be a big-screen version of your ordeal in which you will be played by a famous Hollywood star.
All of which is to say that “Captain Phillips,’’ an extraordinarily gripping movie based on events that took place on the container ship Maersk Alabama in April 2009, both sticks to the accepted playbook and subtly departs from it. Here is the famous star, Tom Hanks — America’s best buddy, for Pete’s sakes — playing ship captain Richard Phillips with a natty beard, a minimum of ego, and a New England accent that stays just this side of tragic. Here is the ship’s crew, quailing in the depths of the hold; here are the four Somali pirates, wraiths with automatic weapons. And here, steaming up on the horizon, is the full might of American response: flat-top destroyers, billions of dollars of most excellent military technology, and Navy SEAL snipers who can shoot the eye out of a nickel at half a mile.
“Captain Phillips’’ has two built-in problems, then: We know how the story ends and the pirates don’t stand a chance. Yet director Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday,’’ “United 93’’), in his steadiest, most focused work to date, creates an aura of urgency so compelling, so rooted in detail, that we temporarily forget what we know and hold our breaths for two-plus hours of tightening suspense. Greengrass has made something more complex than a flag-waver, although it can and will be taken as simply that by some. “Captain Phillips’’ both stands in awe of the firepower and efficiency of America’s military and asks you to think about how it might look from the other side.
Accordingly, the Somali pirate leader, Muse, becomes as important to the drama as the title character, and the first-time actor Barkhad Abdi gives a performance that beautifully complements what Hanks does as Phillips. Abdi is short and painfully skinny but he has immense presence, and he conveys not only Muse’s volatility and the strategic thinking that makes him a natural leader but a weariness that becomes increasingly pointed as the story progresses. At one point, Phillips, whose captors have taken to calling him “Irish,’’ says to Muse, “There’s gotta be something [for you] other than fishing and kidnapping people.’’ Comes the hollow response, “Maybe in America, Irish — maybe in America.’’
Still, if “Captain Phillips’’ hints at the enormity of the gulf separating the First and Third worlds, the film is mostly concerned with depicting the conflict between the two as it centers around one container ship that made the mistake of separating from the pack. After a brief opening scene in Vermont (and a glimpse of Catherine Keener as the captain’s wife), the movie takes us through the loading of the Alabama and the functional monotony of casting off from the Port of Salalah, Oman. These scenes contrast with those set in a coastal Somali village as the minions of a local warlord impress idle fishermen into motorboats at gunpoint. “Get out there on the water and earn money!,’’ they scream, and Muse, a local who has little patience for the warlord’s hotheaded henchman, doesn’t need much convincing.
As the hijackers stalk the Alabama, shipboard routine gets interrupted by drama, and several niggling questions — Why isn’t the crew allowed to carry guns? What was the Alabama doing out there all alone? — get sidetracked by events. Once the pirates have successfully boarded, “Captain Phillips’’ turns into a prolonged game of psychological warfare as the captain gives a diversionary tour of the decks and the hidden crew tries to cut the ship’s power and salt the gangways with booby traps. Hanks stifles his natural affability to play a slightly dull professional man trying to improvise his way out of disaster, and the personalities of the four hijackers give him room to maneuver. (The other three are more generic figures than Muse and include Barkhad Abdirahman’s trigger-happy Bilal, Faysal Ahmed’s baby-faced Najee, and Mahat M. Ali’s stolid pilot Elil.)
At about the film’s two-thirds point, it becomes a different animal entirely. Phillips has been taken aboard the enclosed lifeboat with the pirates and it sits floating in the open sea surrounded by the US warships. “Captain Phillips’’ becomes an intense military procedural along the lines of the final act of “Zero Dark Thirty,’’ even as the human drama becomes more tensely concentrated. In one of his more reined-in performances, Hanks gradually strips away Phillips’s veneer of seamanship to get closer and closer to a core of panic. As the options run out, he’s no longer thinking like a hero. He’s hoping to be a survivor.
The filmmaking style is similarly unfussy, straightforward, crafted for maximum narrative drive. Greengrass has the confidence to keep the pace steady as she goes, and if he doesn’t tarnish the title character’s glow — you won’t learn here that crew members of the Alabama have filed suit against the ship’s owner and operator — he effectively redefines heroism as something less macho and more quixotic than movies tend to give us. Captain Phillips comes off as a company man who risked his life to save his men and his ship. His antagonist, who dreamed of America, is serving 33 years in a US prison.