The smartest thing Paul Greengrass does at the beginning of Captain Phillips is to show us how both the captains around whom the film revolves put to sea. The titular Captain Phillips drives to the airport with his wife for the flight that will take him to Oman to start his voyage. They talk about their kids, the ultra-competitive workplace that awaits them, a world very different from the one their parents grew up in. It’s a conversation that looks to an indeterminate future. Then we cut to Muse in Somalia and suddenly it’s all immediacy. He and his fellow tribesmen are threatened by a group of warlords, ordered to put together crews of desperate men to set sail in flimsy boats and hijack freighters like the kind Phillip captains. There’s no future here beyond the next day, the next act of piracy, the next brief respite from the demands of those who take advantage of them. It almost makes Phillips’ concern for his children seem small, and it’s key in establishing both the dichotomy and connection between the two men that plays out over the rest of the film.
Because in their own ways, both Phillips and Muse are simply trying to take care of their crews, protecting them from the threat of violence. Their paths cross in a thrilling sequence where we see the smart leadership of both men. Phillips uses wily seamanship to thwart Muse’s first attempt to board his ship; Muse practically wills his crew to keep trying. Phillips tries to distract Muse’s band from searching for his crew; Muse sees through Phillips’ ruse to keep them away from the engine room. The nature of his act — and being opposite Tom Hanks — prevents Muse from being seen as heroic, but Greengrass does manage to make him sympathetic, especially when the rest of his crew begins to fray from the stress of their mission. When Phillips says there has to be something else he can do besides hijack ships, Barkhad Abdi invests Muse’s, “Only in America,” with so much regret: at the circumstances that have led him to his act, that have made him and Phillips adversaries, that have made America a distant dream. The moment when Muse realizes he’s been brought aboard a Navy ship not to negotiate but to be apprehended is heart-breaking, because he’ll finally get to see America, but only as a prisoner. It’s that complexity, the avoidance of making Muse a simple cartoon villain, that gives Captain Phillips much of its intensity.
Meanwhile, Hanks once again delivers a very compelling, very human performance. His Phillips never seems angry or vengeful at Muse’s crew, save for one moment very late in the film where it would be hard to imagine someone not being a little angry. But for the most part, he seems to sense the reluctant desperation in these men, and does all he can to steer them away from rash action to a conclusion that won’t result in their deaths. Phillips shows remarkable calm during his ordeal, only Hanks doesn’t play it as an oblivious disregard for danger, but as composure stemming from the knowledge that panic will get him nowhere. You can see Phillips’ thoughts in his eyes, the smallest hints of tension in his voice, and know that he’s frantically trying to stay one step ahead of the pirates without letting on how close he is to losing control. Then Hanks puts the exclamation point on his performance by finally giving in to the trauma of the event only after it’s over, when he can finally allow himself to process just how very near disaster he was, and the wave of relief that floods over him.
As the credits roll, we’re told that Phillips eventually returned to the sea, while Muse remains in federal custody. For all their similarities, it’s a somewhat inevitable outcome, and not just because of our knowledge of how the actual events turned out. It’s there in the nature of the two ships they captain. One massive, steady, inexorable, the other small, buffeted in the wake of the larger craft. Yet while their ships are mismatched, and while the title might put one captain front and center, it’s where these two men meet that Captain Phillips finds its power.