Movie review: Hanks gives a multi-layered performance as a merchant mariner under fire in ‘Captain Phillips’

A threat becomes a menace when it’s clear nothing can be done to stop it.

This distinction is evident early in “Captain Phillips,” a tense, well-acted account of the real-life 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-flagged container ship.

Capt. Richard Phillips ( Tom Hanks) and his unarmed crew do everything right when they see pirates approaching on the Indian Ocean. They speed up and shift course, creating waves to disturb the Somalis’ small skiffs.

But the victories yielded by such emergency procedures prove short-lived. The 500-foot container vessel (another Maersk-line ship subbed for the Alabama during the film’s shoot off Malta) is a sitting duck. The Somalis, in their tiny skiff, will keep coming as long as the Alabama is on the water and within striking distance.

When Capt. Phillips spots a skiff once again emerge in the distance, the sun is shining and the water blue and calm. Yet the image chills. The Somalis have guns and the Alabama’s crew does not, but that’s only part of what makes them scary.

Before the onboard confrontation happens, director Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) has used his hand-held cameras to lend “Phillips” great senses of immediacy and place, making us privy to the thought processes and interpersonal conflicts among the pirates and the ship’s captain and crew.

Relations are fraught and brutal within the pirate ranks before the criminals leave the Somali coast. Achingly thin pirate leader Muse (Somali American actor Barkhad Abdi, effective in his first film role) must withstand several challenges as he rounds up a crew. Once on the water, the pirates stand resolute while buffeted by water as their skiffs take on big waves.

The pirates risk their lives for millions in ransom money paid by foreign shipping companies. But these sea-level soldiers do not reap the riches they collect. They sleep in huts and wear rags.

“Captain Phillips,” based on Phillips’ 2010 book “A Captain’s Duty,” never presents the pirates as sympathetic. But it shows them as human beings whose criminality likely stems from the desperation of Somalia’s widespread poverty. Their ruthlessness reflects their previous experience as pirates and a lack of anything to lose.

Phillips has plenty to lose, including a wife (Catherine Keener, in a blip of role) and a nice life back home in Vermont. But on board, his chief concern is protecting his ship’s crew and cargo.

Hanks plays Phillips as being on high alert from the moment he boards the Alabama. Aware of the constant piracy threats around the Horn of Africa, where his ship will travel, he puts his crew through a safety drill before the real pirates show up.

He also interrupts an extended coffee break being enjoyed by doughy merchant seamen squeezed into the Alabama’s small break room.

This seems like a nothing scene. But it lends important context to Phillips’ later interactions with the hijackers.

The men in the break room jump up when Phillips suggests they’re lingering. Phillips is respected by his right-hand men, including his first mate (a sturdy Michael Chernus) and perhaps even feared by the rank-and-file seaman. He’s a bit of a hard ass.

Keeping this scene in mind helps us recognize that Hanks is doing a performance on top of a performance for much of “Phillips.” Once the hijackers board the Alabama, Hanks makes Phillips so genial and helpful and Hanksian that it’s hard to see the subtlety of his performance. But Phillips’ agreeable-American routine is a ruse, meant to stall and confuse the hijackers.

The edgier and more demanding the Somalis become, the more Phillips calmly and faux-sincerely deflects their questions with double-speak. Only Phillips and a few crew members are visible when the Somalis reach the ship’s bridge. Phillips knows the rest are below deck, but he tells the pirates he has no idea where they are.

Phillips does not want the men found, because more hostages would give the pirates more leverage.

Greengrass captures the claustrophobic nature of ship life once Muse demands Phillips take him below deck to search for other crew members. The narrow passageways enhance the sense that an ocean vessel offers few places to hide.

“Phillips” also underscores the great isolation of ships surrounded by hundreds of miles of ocean. Though the Alabama puts out distress messages early in the hijacking crisis, it’s not like calling 911. It takes what seems like forever for a Navy ship to reach the area, by which point the crisis has intensified and become focused on the captain.

Hanks’ multilayered performance holds up during this section (already a two-time Oscar best-actor winner, for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump,” Hanks is likely to nab another nomination), but tension dissipates as Greengrass leaves Phillips and his captors to show behind-the-scenes discussions of the crisis and how to handle it.

The Navy allowed the production to use real ships. Greengrass shows obvious reverence during scenes involving those ships and real-life Navy personnel. Nothing kills a thriller quicker than reverence, but “Phillips” recovers before fully losing momentum.


* * * 

Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener

Director: Paul Greengrass

Rated PG-13 (for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and substance use)

134 minutes