One of the most terribly-titled films also begins with one of the most terribly dull scenes. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is driven to the airport by his wife (Katherine Keener, whom we never see again). Clumsily, screenwriter Billy Ray (Breach) sets up the parallels between Phillips and his eventual captor, Somali pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Both have bosses putting pressure on them, yadda yadda. We get it.
On the flip side, the segments of the film set in the world of the pirates are among the best. We get a little bit of the economics of getting a job — a qat bribe helps! — and why the Somali pirates do what they do. (Anti-piracy advocates take heart, the movie is still slanted against them and toward the rah-rah Navy SEAL sniper team that comes to put an end to their enterprise.)
Director Paul Greengrass does what he did in United 93, casting non-actors in their real-world roles — and it shows, sometimes egregiously. Luckily the Somali pirates, apparently found among a refugee community in Minnesota, are tremendous, especially Abdi. He more than holds his own against Tom Hanks, who gives a career performance, especially when the in-command captain finally lets go of all pretense of holding himself together.
Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse generate real tension, even though I knew the broad outlines of the story. The final act, when the pirates and their hostage are increasingly surrounded by the full might and power of Uncle Sam, is a knockout. Hanks, too, kicks into high gear.
While this film will inevitably be compared to Zero Dark Thirty, not least in that it re-writes President Obama’s role entirely out of the story, it doesn’t reach that level of verisimilitude. It does, however, provide a thrill-ride from beginning to end with only a few moments that seem Hollywoodized. And because it ends so strong, I recommend it. Those who get queasy with shaky camera footage on the big screen should definitely wait for home video.