It wasnt that long ago and we remember how it turned out. So theres no way that Captain Phillips, the movie about the 2009 pirate attack on the M.V. Maersk Alabama, should be as surprising and entertaining a sea tale as it is.
What happened was more heroic than youd expect. The resistance of the crew, the resilience and craftiness of the pirates and the guile, level-headedness and bravery of the title character are so Hollywood that you sort of expect Bruce Willis heroics and an exchange of pithy trash-talk catch-phrases.
But this thrilling retelling was directed by Paul (United 93) Greengrass, an unfussy director with a talent for tension. And it was adapted from the book by the real Capt. Richard Phillips by screenwriter Billy Ray.
Theyve cooked up an engrossing, sober-minded, fact-centered account, telling the story from parallel points of view of the two hard-case captains here.
Theres Phillips, a veteran no-nonsense sailor, and a Somali pirate named Muse.
Phillips has his job, his pushy bosses, his ways of dealing with an attack by the book. But so does Muse, a smart thug who has to answer to a murderous warlord if he doesnt seize a ship and ransom it and its crew.
No al-Qaida here, Muse grins, pointing his battered AK-47 at Phillips. Just business.
Tom Hanks has built his career on a mastering the details that signal competence in any character, and he disappears into Phillips. Even in the informality of a cargo ship hauling relief supplies up and down the African coast, his captain is all business, demanding professionalism from the crew hes just met.
Barkhad Abdi is Muse, a gaunt figure with expressive eyes who lets us see the wheels turning, just as Hanks does. Their performances never let us forget, as entertaining as their cat-and-mouse game becomes, that these men knew life and death were the stakes.
It all starts with radar blips, a security drill that is not a drill.
Music makes its first appearance beneath the action as the big bulk carrier turns to and fro, blasts geysers of water off all sides to repel boarders, and the pirates bicker as they crash through the huge ships wake in a battered skiff with a balky boat motor.
Then the boarding, a crew in hiding and the gamesmanship that kicks in even as one captain fears for his life and the other, wild-eyed on the mild narcotic khat, fears failure.
Before you know it, the Navys involved and things turn even messier.
Last summers Danish film A Hijacking did a great job of breaking down what happens when a ship is taken by a captain and crew ill-prepared to resist. Hanks is terrific at showing the ways this captain had the presence of mind to tip his crew to his every move, to counter the badly outnumbered pirates, keeping his head even as he lied, time and again.
Greengrass fills his cast with so many unemotional, professional military folks that Captain Phillips can seem like a recruiting ad for Navy SEAL Team 6. Theres a sense of people knowing what theyre doing, with Max Martini as the SEAL negotiator embodying the physique and the calm, firm jock baritone of a soldier who has a procedure for how this will go down and the confidence to stick to that plan.
Hanks lets himself get so deep into this ordeal that you believe the beatings, the horrific stress, the numb terror of that indentation on his forehead where the pistol barrel was pressed.
The performances and Greengrass way with action immerse us and make Captain Phillips a tight, taut, edge-of-your-seat thriller even if you remember the ending.