The "real-life thriller" Captain Phillips may be obvious and it may be clumsy, but it's also at least a little bit thoughtful, and there's never a dull moment. Add in two strong central performances and the stylistic stringency of Paul Greengrass, and you get, at the very least, a fine approximation of an important Oscar-time movie.
The whole enterprise is basically here to give Tom Hanks something to do, and do it he does as Captain Rich Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-registered cargo ship beset by pirates while on its way from Oman to Kenya in 2009. Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (State of Play), working from Phillips' book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, hurriedly establish victims—Phillips, his wife (Catherine Keener in a blink-or-you'll-miss-'er cameo), and his crew—and perps, the Somali crews sent out by a warlord padding his war chest.
The pirate captain, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) quickly draws our attention as the counterpart to Phillips. Skinny and living under a more intense duress than Phillips, Muse nevertheless deals with similar issues that put him in harm's way for capitalist goals, and into conflict with his unhappy crew. Perhaps afraid of false equivalency, Captain Phillips offers no glimpse of the pirates' home lives or families, inviting audiences to assume that alleviating their poverty and hunger are solely self-serving ends.
Unlike the superior Danish drama A Hijacking released here earlier this year, Captain Phillips is framed as a mostly one-sided "game" of outwitting the blunt-force pirates: though both sides of the conflict strategize, cast watchful glances, and dole out lies, half-truths and empty reassurances, Phillips represents can-do experience and heroic bravery and calm under pressure that contrast to the machine-gun wielding, bickering, greedy pirates.
Greengrass, who has alternated between fact-based and fictional action (United 93 and two Bourne movies), has a detail-oriented style that makes films like Captain Phillips feel authentic regardless of liberties of perspective or narrative efficiency (he has yet to top his 2002 breakthrough film Bloody Sunday). He's clearly aware of how this relatively intimate struggle can be read as an allegory for global balance of power in economic and (para)military flavors.
It's too bad that the story is so straightforward that Ray is left no thematic choice in his dialogue but to ricochet macho attitudes. Phillips kicks off the film by worrying of his son, "You've got to be strong to survive out there" (foreshadowing alert!), and for another couple of hours, we get variations on the same from out of the mouths of pirates: "You sound like a little girl...this game isn't for the weak." "You need to be strong." "You have to be strong to get what you want!" "Be a man!"
The conflict of first and third worlds brings another irony with it: while Abdi (along with co-stars Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) goes toe-to-toe with Hanks, he probably won't be snagging an Oscar nominations. But then, he doesn't get the showy cathartic resolution afforded Hanks, who, it must be said, nails it after a pleasingly subtle two-hour build.