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'Captain Phillips': High Stakes On The High Seas

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Before seeing Paul Greengrass' nerve-wracking, based-on-fact thriller Captain Phillips, I'd never been able to get my head around the logistics of Somali piracy. Enormous commercial freighters, captured and held for ransom by tiny bands of pirates — often teenagers — who always seem to overtake the freighters on the high seas in fishing skiffs smaller than the freighters' lifeboats.

I mean, you wonder: How on earth could four or five teenagers capture a freighter, subduing a far larger crew and extracting millions of dollars in ransom?

Wonder no more.

Greengrass — director of two Bourne movies and the based-on-real-life Sept. 11 nightmare United 93 — bows to no one when it comes to bringing screen clarity to complex action. Give the man a Point A, a Point B, and half a dozen perfectly good reasons the two can't be visually or logically connected, and he'll still manage to give you the cinematic equivalent of a straight line. He has a capacity for making murky plans transparent, subterfuges clear, and in Captain Phillips he brushes in the built-in defenses of the freighter Maersk Alabama before it's quite occurred to you to grapple with how a hijacker might get past them.

Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks sporting a distracting New England accent, but otherwise persuasive) has no sooner boarded the ship than he's found grates unlocked between decks and ordered extra security checks. By the time the ship is rounding the Horn of Africa, a day or so out of port in April 2009, he's presiding over a full-on security drill.

The timing proves fortuitous. The men have barely been mustered when the drill becomes more than an exercise.

"I don't like the look of that," Phillips growls, peering at twin blips that shouldn't be on his ship's radar.

He likes it even less when he scrutinizes them through his binoculars and sees two tiny fishing skiffs speeding toward his ship, manned by Somalis with assault rifles who are looking at his freighter much as Ahab once looked at Moby-Dick.

Phillips radios for help, and when it's not forthcoming he gets creative, scaring off one skiff's crew with a clever exercise in what you might call sleight of voice. The other skiff's crew, though, is made of sterner stuff — and relentless, as led by the gaunt, scarily calm Muse, played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Though Phillips buys the crew time to hide below decks — the locks on those grates prove utterly useless — the lumbering freighter can't outrun the skiff, and soon it's been boarded by four determined young pirates.

Greengrass being an old hand at ratcheting up tension, this first half of the movie works more or less the way you'd expect. But then Phillips gets trapped with the pirates in a tiny enclosed lifeboat, separate from the ship, and the film shifts into less thoroughly charted dramatic waters, with the director making the pirates strikingly individual and the story turning into a saga of haves and have-nots. As two very different "captains" square off, and the desperation of the Somalis comes into sharper focus, the film becomes both more intimate and more politically intriguing.

This part of the film, and a denouement that finds Hanks getting startlingly raw and personal, are transformative, allowing the film to overcome an endgame that plays a bit like a Navy SEAL recruitment film. (Of course it actually happened, so you can't fault the filmmakers for that.)

And anyway, Hanks and Abdi are so compellingly matched that unlike with most thrillers, it won't be the action climax in Captain Phillips that'll stick with you. It'll be that aftermath, which gets at the emotional toll of terrorism in a way few movies have. (Recommended)

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