First, there's the American crew of the Maersk Alabama, a massive cargo ship heading for Mombassa, Kenya, to deliver food aid and various other goods, led by Capt. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), a pragmatic sailor whose earnestness is matched only by his conviction.
Eying the freighter's cargo is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), an enterprising and smart low-rung honcho of a Somali-pirate group working for an infamous drug kingpin. Later, after Muse and his men kidnap Phillips for ransom, fleeing the Alabama in its small lifeboat, a U.S. Navy SEAL team is introduced as a cold and brutal force of closure.
Based on actual events that transpired April 7 through 12, 2009, Captain Phillips progresses meticulously in a tightly linear fashion. Actions carry the weight of life and death. Hanks' astoundingly flexible turn as a man forced to wear multiple masks depending on the gravity of each situation helps amplify the tension.
Early on, Phillips' only concern is for his men (he's even testing the crew on piracy evasion upon first spotting the approaching Somali skiffs). As the intruders make their way aboard the massive tanker, we see the futility of official protocols and lockdown procedures in real-world situations. Phillips and his crew must rely on their own improvisation and understanding of the ship to survive the relentless pursuit and splintering AK-47 gunfire.
When the film transitions from the Alabama to the small lifeboat, it becomes a claustrophobic thriller that pits the increasingly panicked pirates against the swift (and nearly faceless) American Special Forces. During these tightly confined scenes, thematic connections between Muse and Phillips become more developed, giving what could have been a traditional standoff an even greater sense of intimacy.
Captain Phillips is another sterling example of Greengrass' ability to capture the immediacy of high pressure situations. The hand-held camera work and layered sound design found here is a style that also marked the British filmmaker's masterpiece, Bloody Sunday, a horrific eye-level account of the 1972 Bogside Massacre in Derry, England.
But Captain Phillips is not only concerned with the visceral depiction of recent history; it's also a critique of ideological systems (governmental, economic) that manipulate men like Phillips and Muse to sustain suffocating cycles of commerce. Both may be leaders on the ground, but they're ultimately subordinates to unseen masters dictating procedure and profit margins. The ghostly SEAL team that sweeps into the film's third act with startling efficiency represents the purest form of this idea.
Phillips and Muse occasionally break free of these constraints, cutting through the contradictions of their predicament and engaging with each other as men, not cogs in an unseen machine. Their complex relationship becomes quite subversive in this sense. Some critics have already called the film to task for glorifying the might of the American military. But I'd argue it does exactly the opposite, highlighting the struggles of men like Phillips and Muse who are still capable of seeing their opposition as human beings despite the situational pressures.
If this is the case, Captain Phillips might be one of the few recent American films (along with Zero Dark Thirty) to unflinchingly depict the consequences of sanctioned violence enacted in the name of Western safety. Look no further than the final sequence, which scarily portrays how quickly death comes knocking—and how slowly it takes for the shock of survival to subside.