By Eric Henderson

There is a refrain, almost a mantra shared between the two leads in Paul Greengrass’s (United 93) new docudrama Captain Phillips, which depicts the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, the first U.S. ship to have been seized by pirates in over two centuries.

“I am the captain.”

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Both Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), captain of the cargo ship, and Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who seizes control of the band of Somali pirates immediately prior to their assault on the 500-foot vessel, repeat this phrase multiple times as the balance of control passes back and forth between the two.

They both believe it to be true, and Greengrass’s film spends a considerable amount of time disabusing both of that belief. Captain Phillips, a tense true-life action film that seems considerably indebted to the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) in its eventual focus on the ins and outs of tactical military operations, is also a turf war between two men who realize, too late, that their very livelihoods are solely determined by the strength of their respective powers-that-be.

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The details of the story are actually nearly as sparse as the skeletal scenario for Gravity, though early in the film, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray prioritize parallel character development and political scene-setting between both Phillips and Muse. The former is shown speculating with his wife on their children’s future — “There’s 50 qualified men for every position,” he scoffs — and the latter is seen literally enacting Phillips’ words a half a world away, choosing a small crew of pirates from 50 or so desperate Somali fishers.

Muse and his fellow villagers are clearly at the mercy of powerful organized crime syndicates, and their powerlessness manifests itself in machine gun-toting bluster. Phillips is brusque with his union-member subordinates, clock-watching their coffee breaks and rarely engaging in small talk with them. Again, parallel and perpendicular at the same time, but it’s the realization both parties make as to their ultimate powerlessness against their assumed protectors that seems to inform Richard Phillips’ shattered emotional state post rescue, even more so than the traumatic collapse of tightly-wound, fight-or-flight instinct.

Greengrass is one of action cinema’s most controversial bastions of I guess what you might call véritéstosterone, and as soon as the pirates pursue the Maersk Alabama, Captain Phillips maintains a grim intensity for the remainder of its running time. The outcome may not be a surprise to anyone, but the vacillations between Phillips and Muse will be.

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As most in Minnesota now know, many of the actors playing Somalis in the film were discovered right here in the Twin Cities. Very few had any experience acting, which is part of the strategy Greengrass apparently intended — to offset Hanks’ well-seasoned chops against the volatility of amateurs. In the end, the performances of both the veteran and the newcomers are stronger for it. Abdi’s performance has been sold by Oscar bloggers as terrifying, but there’s actually a wealth of vulnerability and wounded pride underneath the threats. And Hanks, who keeps his cards very close through most of the film, earns every one of his plaudits with the alarming explosion of fragility he displays in the movie’s final moments.

Eric Henderson