The best docu-dramas have a gift for taking a story we think we know and showing us the many layers that we don’t. So while you may remember the news story from a few years ago, the one where Navy SEALs snipers took out three Somali pirates who were holding an American boat captain hostage, screenwriter Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “The Hunger Games”) and director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) put us right in the thick of the action in “Captain Phillips.”
Based on Richard Phillips and Stephen Talty’s memoir “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea,” this movie evokes the terror of Phillips’ captivity with the kind of immersive storytelling for which Greengrass has become known. But while the filmmakers capture their hero through both words and deeds, they fail to paint as vivid a portrait of their villains.
The story in and of itself is a gripping one: In the spring of 2009, Phillips (played here with unfussy humanity by Tom Hanks) was shepherding the cargo ship Maersk Alabama around the horn of Africa when it was set upon by Somali pirates. The captain and his crew managed to elude the raiders on their first pass, but the following day, the marauders boarded the ship.
Unable to access the ship’s cargo and fought to a standstill by the crew, the pirates instead took Phillips hostage, intending to transport him to Somalia to be ransomed by the insurance company. After several days in a lifeboat — an enclosed vessel, not like the ones you’ve seen in “Life of Pi” or Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” — Phillips was eventually rescued by the Navy.
It takes real skill to build genuine suspense when telling a story the ending of which everyone already knows, but Ray and Greengrass keep us on our toes, mainly by portraying the pirates as dangerous opponents, even when they’re surrounded by aircraft carriers.
But while Phillips comes off as resourceful, brave and dedicated, his captors more often than not resemble zombies — Greengrass often shoots them in a way that makes their eyes invisible, rendering them soulless. The group’s leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) gets in a few lines about how his people are victimized by larger nations (who have overfished the waters) and the local warlords (who pocket whatever fortunes these pirates manage to pilfer), but he mostly comes off as a mere monster, constantly chewing khat leaves and glowering.
Greengrass is obviously no colonist — his “Bloody Sunday” was an impassioned tale of Northern Ireland bearing the brunt of British violence — but his portrayal here of a noble white officer suffering at the hands of insidious black pirates smacks of Rudyard Kipling.
Still, it’s a fine showcase for Hanks, who captures the captain’s quiet authority in calm seas, his fortitude under duress and his overwhelming shock when the ordeal ends. It’s too bad his most extended bit of dialogue is a horribly written exchange with the missus (played by Catherine Keener in a terrible wig), in which they speak in the broadest terms about the world today and things sure are rough and all. His performance picks up substantially once he leaves the suburbs and assumes command of the bridge.
“Captain Phillips” will no doubt draw comparisons to “Zero Dark Thirty” for its ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling, but this is a case in which the writer and director are as interested in the human element as they are in the true events they’re recounting. It’s too bad that they couldn’t have made their real-life bad guys as multi-dimensional as their hero.
For the record: A previous version of this story said Paul Greengrass directed “The Bourne Identity.”