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Captain Phillips” tells the true story of Richard Phillips, the Merchant Marine officer whose U.S. cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates in April of 2009. It was the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in more than 200 years.

The movie starts at a disadvantage, since some viewers will remember the story’s outcome, and others will rightly assume it, knowing that Hollywood would never permit pirates to deep six Tom Hanks, who stars as Phillips. But given that limitation, “Captain Phillips” works effectively to establish tension chronicling the hours before and during the takeover.

The first thing to know about piracy at sea is that most cargo ships sail through the dangerous waters off the Somali coast unarmed. Apparently insurance companies would rather pay off pirates than risk an armed conflict. Still, it should not be this easy for four malnourished, squabbling Somali teenagers on a rickety speedboat to take over a giant, sophisticated merchant ship with a crew of 20.

But they do, and once that happens, the movie settles down to an old-fashioned cat-and-mouse duel between the crew and their foes. The pirates’ leader is Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi, a former Minneapolis chauffeur and Somali immigrant with no acting experience before he was selected for the role. It was a good pick: Mr. Abdi brings nuance and humanity to his part. This is critical, because the movie spends hardly any time examining how some Somalis are driven to such desperate behavior. The only exchange that even hints at a rationale is when the captain asks his captor, “Surely there’s something other than fishing and kidnapping you people can do?” Muse replies, “In America, maybe.”

More context would have added some interesting depth to the story. But for all that, the tale is extremely well told. The four pirates (spoiler alert) flee the Alabama on a lifeboat with Phillips and make for the Somali coast but are soon intercepted by the U.S. Navy. There is a series of tense standoffs as the pirates threaten to execute Phillips unless their ransom demands are met, and he seeks to exert some influence as events increasingly lurch out of control.

The movie has been criticized for being excessively jingoistic. Viewers could be forgiven for inferring a self-righteous smugness about America’s military might and self-appointed role as the world’s beat cop. But flag-waving is beside the point. “Captain Phillips” is about regular people caught in the gears of great events. Tom Hanks has always been good at portraying the common man. Here he is splendid, especially in the last few scenes as he registers fright, pain and shock at the climax. His performance ennobles what is otherwise a straightforward – if well-done – thriller.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...