There's a long(ish) shot late in this movie where the camera follows a cable connecting a huge Navy rescue ship to the tiny lifeboat it's tugging to safety. On that lifeboat is Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship, as well as three of his four kidnappers, Somali pirates-for-hire (Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali and Barkhad Abdirahman) who've attacked the giant vessel hoping to score big for their bosses. Abandoning the ship and the crew that decided to fight back, the four young men, malnourished and wired on khat, having bitten off a lot more than they can chew, are on the verge of failing at their steal-millions mission. Their only chance of getting what they came for is by taking Phillips hostage.
The shot of the cable lingers for longer than you'd think it should, traversing its length as the music swells dramatically and sadly, suggesting that the connection between these two entities is a fixed and hopeless one, the military and economic powerhouse of developed Western countries versus the desperate have-nots who resort to any criminal means necessary for their own survival, the former usually winning any sort of stand-off. "There's got to be something other than kidnapping people," offers Phillips to his captors. The response: "Maybe in America."
We're all the same. But we're not. And that's too bad, of course. But don't come at us with machine guns trying to kill us for our stuff or we'll send the Navy SEALS after you and that'll be all she wrote. A less conscientious filmmaker would have settled it that way, allowing space for some nationalistic tone and ass-kicking pride. And while this movie and, to some degree, Zero Dark Thirty, contribute to a narrative of reassurance through military might (a brawnier, sturdier, more confident conversation than the one conducted by the despair-filled films of the Iraq War) Paul Greengrass (United 93, two of the Bourne movies) isn't much of a jingoist. He doesn't leave room for fist-pumping revenge-applause. He pulls back, dropping easily identified but still relatively subtle observations about power, justice and bravery, choosing metaphor-building over extensive backstory. There's no jaunty gang of marionettes singing "America, F*#% Yeah!" anywhere nearby. [Note: More specific plot details follow below, but this incident was already a widely reported news story in 2009 and the subject of a subsequent book, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty.]
This approach works well for Phillips. When he offers himself as hostage to save his crew, later tending to the broken-glass-shredded foot of one of his attackers, we understand him as Christ-like and sacrificial. We barely know where he comes from, only that he's a stoic figure who runs a very tight ship, but in the end we're meant to aspire to his level of resolve and identify with his fear. For his pirate captors, crushed by poverty and hopelessness, fueled by hunger, anger and whatever's in that khat, the minimalist character-building approach doesn't work out as well. Everything is wild-eyed rage and screaming, their devastation turning dispensable whenever Phillips himself isn't bolstering their humanity and playing out that human connection suggested by the tug line.
It's a tight, controlled, tense experience -- even though the ending is already public knowledge-- one that wastes nothing and refuses more than it indulges. And Hanks carries all the emotional weight, giving a stripped down performance that evolves into that thing films like this almost never show the audience, a trauma victim in stress-exhausted shock rather than the kind of cocksure, strutting, Expendables-style heroes that only exist in that sort of cartoon. No wisecracks tossed off as the captain walks away from the scene of the averted crime; the guy's too busy catching his breath.