As awesome as Tom Hanks is in “Captain Phillips,” playing the captain of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates — and Hanks is Oscar-contender awesome — his best moments are shared with people who have never been in a movie before. And they are awesome, too.
More about them in a minute.
If you paid no attention to the headlines in 2009, when this hijacking took place, this is your spoiler alert. “Captain Phillips” is a very suspenseful movie in spite of the fact that you likely know going in what the outcome will be. Trigger-happy, desperate, third-world kidnappers have a way of gripping a first-world audience.
So does Hanks, once again playing an everyman caught in extraordinary circumstances. The movie opens with mundane scenes: wife seeing hubby off at a Vermont airport, hubby overseeing the casting off of his ship from a port in Oman, crewmen lingering over a coffee break.
But things soon kick into a higher gear as we see warlords in a Somali fishing village recruiting hijackers at the point of a semiautomatic to launch their tiny boats and go make them money. Chapter one of this movie is their lengthy pursuit of the Danish cargo ship Maersk Alabama, crewed by Americans.
Occupying the ship is chapter two, bringing that first truly electric moment Hanks shares with an unknown. Barkhad Abdi, a Somali immigrant from Minneapolis, plays Muse (pronounced moo-SAY), the leader of the four pirates. When they burst onto the bridge, guns ablaze, he fixes his gaze on Phillips and orders: “Look at me. Look at me. I am the captain now.”
It was an improvised moment that director Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Supremacy”) knew he had to keep. It was also the actual moment Abdi and Hanks met for the first time. Abdi has a powerful, ferocious screen presence that serves the movie all the way through. His three fellow pirates are also Somali natives cast in Minneapolis, and the authenticity of that is unmistakable.
“No worries, Irish,” Muse often says to Phillips. “Everything gonna be OK.”
The middle section of the movie is cat-and-mouse aboard the cargo ship. The crew hides or performs a bit of sabotage while Phillips tries to manage the hijackers.
By the last third of the movie, the hijackers have boarded the cargo ship's life raft, a sealed orange container with tiny windows, taking Phillips with them. The idea is to get to the Somali coast and hold him for ransom, but the U.S. Navy and SEAL teams have other ideas.
When it's all over, and Phillips is whisked onto the warship USS Bainbridge, another amazing moment with an unknown happens. While the script called for Phillips to fall apart in private, in the Navy captain's quarters, Greengrass instead decided last minute to shoot a scene with Phillips in sick bay. He asked a real Navy medic to do the exam just as she would for any trauma victim. Corpsman Danielle Albert — along with Hanks' impressive skills — makes that moment of emotional release totally credible.
Moments like that lift “Captain Phillips” beyond a good suspense thriller. You can't help but be impressed by the performance of the U.S. military in this story. Yet you can't come away without also glimpsing the mindset of those Somali pirates and what motivates them.
“There's gotta be something (you could do) other than kidnapping people,” Phillips says to Muse at one point.
“Maybe in America, Irish,” his captor answers back.
* * * *
Quality: Three and a half stars (out of four)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Stars: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Catherine Keener
Rating: PG-13 for sustained intense menace, violence with bloody images, substance use
Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Theaters: Aksarben, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Midtown, Oakview, Regal, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads