In the opening scenes of the harrowing, true-life drama Captain Phillips, the titular captain (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) discuss their son's academic difficulties. Phillips is headed to a job where his ship will be hijacked by Somali pirates seeking ransom. It's easy to assume that director Paul Greengrass is making sure we know there are family members worried sick about the captain. But his aim may be even simpler: showing that this character is an ordinary person.
In his previous hijacking drama, United 93, Greengrass proved he can convey the plight of ordinary people thrust into unimaginable situations, those who push past fear to fight for their lives. Captain Phillips covers only a few days in April 2009, but the experience feels longer and more satisfying because the circumstances keep shifting. After one foiled attempt, a group of pirates led by the determined Muse (Barkhad Abdi) board Phillips' Maersk Alabama vessel and take him hostage while other crew members hide in the engine room.
Greengrass pulls us through various reversals of fortune using a shaky-cam style that emphasizes the moment-to-moment urgency of the situation. He builds tension unobtrusively, focused on the idea that the crew's survival depends on their doing exactly what they're trained to do in such emergencies. While Phillips often has to think on his feet to keep his men safe -- for instance, by notifying them that one pirate is barefoot so they can scatter broken glass on the floor -- this isn't what makes the story so gripping. Captain Phillips finds suspense in the businesslike execution of a plan.
There is a human element at work as well, and not just in Hanks' performance. He's impressive in a way we haven't seen him be in a long time, capturing the sense of responsibility that drives Phillips' methodical approach to a crisis. The scene where his predicament becomes clear may be the best single moment of Hanks' acting career. Yet Greengrass takes a risk by making the hijackers somewhat sympathetic, driven by a sense that they have no other choice but to do what they do. Abdi becomes an intriguing villain, single-minded about his task yet a hostage to his circumstances.
As Captain Phillips begins to focus on a military operation designed to take down the pirates, Greengrass never diverts attention to worried family members on the home front. He makes this drama about average people facing life-and-death choices into a story of adrenaline and intelligence, finding the purest action in the sheer will to survive.