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Captain Phillips is not an inaccurate title for Paul Greengrass‘ latest movie, but it is an incomplete one. While the drama does indeed chronicle the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama from the point of view of the titular hostage, this isn’t really an epic about a brave captain battling vicious pirates. (Or not just that, anyway.) It’s a tragedy about two men caught in a very desperate situation.

The film picks up just a few days before the ordeal begins. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) flies from the U.S. to Oman so he can guide the Maersk Alabama around the Horn of Africa, while Muse (Barkhad Abdi) assembles his team for his latest piracy mission from a local warlord. The Somalis just so happen to choose Phillips’ ship as their mark, and ultimately board the ship in hopes of collecting a multimillion-dollar ransom.

Superficially, Captain Phillips is exactly the nail-biting thriller promised by the trailers. The concept is inherently dramatic, even if the ending has already been “spoiled” by real life, and Greengrass and his team expertly milk the tension for all it’s worth. Barry Acrkoyd‘s deft cinematography adds a “you-are-there” urgency that makes it impossible to look away, and Henry Jackman‘s score is powerful without being manipulative.

But if that was all the movie had going for it, it’d be little more than a fancier version of those dramatizations seen in true-crime TV shows. What takes Captain Phillips to the next level is the fact that Greengrass’ hyper-realistic approach also extends to the characters. Instead of heroes and villains, Greengrass offers two people who, like actual, real-life people, can’t help but be products of their respective circumstances. And those circumstances are very different indeed.

The first time we see Phillips, he’s rushing around his modest but comfortable Vermont home to get ready for his next trip. As his affectionate wife (Catherine Keener) drives him to the airport, the couple discuss their two children. In contrast, Muse is sleeping alone on the dirty floor of a run-down shed the first time we see him. Anyone who turned on the news in 2009 knows enough about the real-life incident to worry for Phillips from the moment he’s introduced, but Muse’s obviously hardscrabble existence elicits a twinge of sympathy as well.

As the movie goes on, that twinge becomes a full-on ache. While the film never excuses, let alone glorifies, the pirates’ atrocious actions, it takes pains to show us why these seemingly decent men would do such terrible things. Those efforts sometimes lack in subtlety — Muse tells Phillips late in the film that “maybe in America” he’d have options other than piracy and fishing, as if the film hadn’t made that clear several times over by then — but they get the job done. I found myself in the impossible position of hoping that both men would get exactly what they wanted.

Aiding the film’s complexity are excellent performances by the entire cast, particularly leads Hanks and Abdi. Hanks’ reputation as an actor is such that sheer excellence seems par for the course, but he still manages to impress. As Phillips veers between brave determination and justifiable terror, Hanks keeps unearthing new layers to him, making it all the more powerful when he’s finally stripped bare at the end.

It’s even more impressive, then, that Abdi more than manages to hold his own against Hanks. Captain Phillips is his first professional acting role, but one wouldn’t know it from his riveting performance. His Muse is believably terrifying, but never less than heartbreakingly human. It’s not that Muse seems like a good guy, exactly, but that it’s tough not to see that he might have been one under different circumstances. 

By the end, when (spoiler alert, if you weren’t following the news in 2009) Phillips is rescued, there’s zero joy in seeing Muse get his comeuppance. And that dull regret, more than the nail-biting action, is what lasts. Captain Phillips is perfectly effective as a thriller, but it really resonates as a drama about race, class, opportunity, and human nature.

/Film rating: 8.0 out of 10.0

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