It's not easy to make a film out of real-life events and turn it into a gripping thriller -- especially when most of your audience knows the ending.
However, it's not impossible. Last year, Kathryn Bigelow did it with "Zero Dark Thirty" and Ben Affleck with "Argo." Steven Spielberg even did it, in a way, with "Lincoln."
Now director Paul Greengrass has turned the trick with "Captain Phillips," a harrowing re-creation of the 2009 hijacking of an American freighter by Somali pirates. With some considerable help from star Tom Hanks as the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, Greengrass has taken Phillips' ordeal and made it a vivid tale of an everyman's battle for survival in the midst of what turned into an international incident.
Greengrass doesn't waste too much time setting the scene. Phillips, a veteran sailor, says goodbye to his wife (a brief appearance by Catherine Keener) before flying to take command of the Maersk Alabama, a ship that is carrying a cargo largely made up of food and other supplies for charitable organizations working in Africa. His job is to sail the freighter from southern Oman to Kenya -- right through waters off the coast of Somalia.
At the same time, on the beach in the city of Eyl, Somali pirates are getting organized to take to the seas, looking for hijacking targets. Most are former fishermen who see piracy as a way out of poverty; even then, some take on the job only reluctantly.
As Phillips sails down the coast -- it becomes clear very quickly that he has deep concerns about the lack of security on the boat -- the pirates set off in skiffs commanded by Muse (a very good Barkhad Abdi). Muse's crew is hardly a crack military team. The men barely know each other, something that becomes very clear as the film progresses and internal bickering breaks out among the Somalis.
But the crew is good enough to spot and track the Maersk Alabama. Phillips and his men thwart one attack (one skiff turns back), but Muse and three other pirates eventually board and take over the ship. For his part, Phillips manages to hide most of his crew in the bowels of the massive freighter (a pirate search for men is a tense, beautifully crafted bit of filmmaking).
Things unravel quickly for Muse and his pirates. The crew manages to disable the ship. However, the U.S. Navy is in pursuit and closing fast. Two of the pirates -- Muse and the young Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) -- are injured. With their hijacking unraveling, the pirates grab Phillips and take off in one of the ship's high-tech lifeboats for the Somali coast. At least the pirates can still get a handsome ransom for the captain.
It all comes down to a climactic showdown at sea involving the lifeboat, multiple Navy ships, attack helicopters and a crack team of SEALs. The ending is so dramatic that it seems like a piece of fiction -- except that's the way things turned out in real life.
At the heart of the drama is the battle of wits between Phillips and Muse. The two men, both fundamentally decent souls, parry and thrust as the crisis boils around them. Aside from a very bad Boston accent that comes and goes, Hanks is superb as Phillips, who in a nuanced performance conveys the man's intelligence and drive to survive. Abdi, a Somali emigre living in America making his film debut, captures Muse's street smarts and his ambivalence toward the life he has to lead.
Working with a sharp script drawn from Phillips' memoir by Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass") and crack cinematographer Barry Ackroyd ("The Hurt Locker"), Greengrass has treated his source material with respect, shaping an intelligent, spellbinding drama. Few directors are better at re-creating real-life events; he proved that with 2006's extraordinary "United 93," the best of all the 9/11 films, and with 2002's "Bloody Sunday," set in the worst days of the Irish-British conflict.
However, Greengrass' lean-and-mean approach to the story does lead to the film's one flaw. There is very little background and context to "Captain Phillips" with no examination of the politics of the region, what drives the Somalis or the willingness of international shipping companies to keep sending largely unprotected ships into harm's way. For that, you'll have to find last year's "A Hijacking" from Danish director Tobias Lindholm, which is not nearly as pulse-pounding but is far more complex.
Still, the flaw is not a fatal one. "Captain Phillips" will grab and hold your attention from its first few minutes to its startling conclusion.
For film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
* * * ½
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences and some violence)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi,
Max Martini and Catherine Keener
Director: Paul Greengrass
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes