Captain Phillips

Well, why not make a true-life procedural thriller about the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, the first American vessel to be boarded by pirates in 200 years? And why not cast Tom Hanks as the container-ship skipper who played a good strategic game against his attackers — at least until they kidnapped and stuffed him at gunpoint into a lifeboat. Screenwriter Billy Ray’s stripped-down adaptation of Phillips’ memoir, A Captain’s Duty, accords well with Paul Greengrass’ deliberately quotidian, documentary-style direction. While the events depicted here do at times suggest a sort of Die Hard on the high seas, the tone is refreshingly anti-triumphalist. And although our memory of those events arguably has less emotional valence than the downing of United 93 on 9/11, Greengrass, who also made United 93, nimbly does the jiujitsu of turning our knowing what happened into a special kind of suspense. Yes, Captain Phillips’ situation eventually was resolved by good ol’ SEAL Team Six, but he sure went through some wouldn’t-want-to-be-that-guy hell before that. Hanks is as good as he’s been in years, and newcomer Barkhad Abdi, a Somali nonactor from Minneapolis, plays the pirate leader with moving, guileless pathos. Aside from one gently emphasized exchange in which Phillips tells his captor there must be something more than fishing and kidnapping, and gets the reply, “Maybe in America,” the movie doesn’t really say much. But maybe it’s enough just to say: Wow, this happened.