By KJ Doughton | October 18, 2013

Had “Captain Phillips” been any more gripping, all ten of my fingernails would remain imbedded in the theater-chair armrests. Hurling us onto a massive cargo ship being hijacked by desperate Somalian pirates, the fact-based film is unrelenting in its sustained tension. With a documentarian’s eye for realism and Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense, director Paul Greengrass induces terror with mere blips on a radar screen. Later, a lifeboat full of sweaty aggressors buzzes like an angry hornet’s nest – and we can nearly feel the stings.  Greengrass has skimmed the cream off of his past films, and masterfully stirred it together: The violent physicality of “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” is fused with the heroic, fragile humanity of “United Flight 93,” and it’s a stunning blend.

“Captain Phillips” starts out small. Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks), a Vermont-based merchant marine whose face sports a salt and pepper goatee and silver spectacles, will soon be navigating the Maersk Alabama, transporting its food and commercial goods across the Indian Ocean. But here and now, speeding to the airport where he’ll catch a flight to his ship, Phillips is merely an ordinary guy with common middle-aged concerns. “Companies want things faster and cheaper,” he laments to his loving wife (Catherine Keener), anxious about his growing children entering an increasingly ruthless job market.

Phillips’ sprawling ship is scheduled to push its freight from Oman to Kenya, but there’s a catch: the Captain and his crew must navigate their watercraft through a span of ocean where determined Somali pirates are looting watercraft on a frighteningly routine basis. Once the Maersk leaves port, a low hum of dread sets onto the ship and quickly grows louder with each ominous hint of impending chaos. In one ironic foreshadowing, we hear Eric Clapton’s mellow “Wonderful Tonight” serenading Phillips from a background radio, while Coast Guard pirating warnings glow from his computer monitor.

Meanwhile, the crew has no weapons on board to deter invaders, aside from a series of high-powered water hoses surrounding the ship. Phillips clearly knows the potential risks of his trek, conveying a twitchy vigilance as he heightens security and conducts emergency drills with his dutiful crew-members.

However, malevolent forces are tracking his ship from the nearby shores of Somalia. A skeletal, iron-willed fisherman named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) assembles a gang to pillage the ship and claim its riches. The men live in a cycle of desperation, bullied by warlords and angling haplessly from depleted waters. When Muse, his eyes bulging like black marbles, spots the ship sailing as a lone blip on their radar and plans his robbery, we shudder in the knowledge that he’s capable of anything. The film doesn’t excuse Muse’s actions, but does afford the pirates a grudging empathy. We’re shown the starving Somalian universe they inhabit, and later discover that they’ve been bilked by their elders for millions of dollars looted over the years.

As the ship’s crew and its invaders face off, “Captain Phillips” becomes an exercise in escalation, and its well-paced surges of suspense and violent movement always feel grounded in reality. The sight of a malfunctioning water-hose becomes a stressful ordeal, and when a steel ladder is lifted from the pirate’s tiny spiff and snagged onto the ship’s seemingly impenetrable frame, it’s guaranteed to trigger a rush of cortisol. During the film’s final stretch, when Muse’s increasingly desperate gang take Phillips hostage on a crowded life-boat, we feel encased in a rolling, bobbing coffin.

Greengrass films “Captain Phillips” like a jittery documentary, his hand-held cameras whipping around, swooping, and diving to accent the danger. We’re pulled into the action when pirates invade the ship’s interior, frantically waving their guns and demanding money. The film saves any slickness and gloss for its finale, when the high technology and heavy artillery of Navy Seals and battleships enter the mix. With its bravado rescue-mission climax, “Captain Phillips” has been compared to “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s take on the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. But during its final moments, there’s a lump-in-throat moment of aching, broken humanity absent from Bigelow’s film. In a performance that projects both toughened stoicism and soft fragility, Hanks reminds us that this is more than an astonishing adventure saga, but also a study of individual men.

Meanwhile, the sensational Abdi, who worked at a Target store in Minneapolis before being discovered by the film’s casting directors, infuses Muse with both menace and an odd likeability. Ruthless, determined, and oblivious to the monstrous odds against them, Muse’s crew brings to mind the hapless bank robbers from “Dog Day Afternoon.” And like that classic Sidney Lumet film, “Captain Phillips” ends with a jarring sense of finality.

“Captain Phillips” has plenty of cheer-worthy moments, but there’s also a melancholy vein of tragedy running through its action. Reminding us that there is a misguided logic to Muse’s aggression, and showing us the sad trauma that often follows in the wake of heroism, Greengrass makes it hard to revel in bloodlust, whether or not the good guys win.

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