This highly suspenseful movie features a great story, terrific acting, and several important themes. A good subtitle might be, "Vermont Yankee Meets Somali Terrorists." The role of Vermont Yankee is played by Tom Hanks with great subtlety: he not only sounds like a Vermonter but he also behaves like one -- laconic, blunt, and neighborly, even when he is being held by a terrorist gang.
The story is compelling: a crew of Americans is trying to sail a giant freighter through pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa. They know the area is dangerous; they drill for terrorist attacks -- and then they are attacked. The pirate attack happens early in the film, at which point the pace of the action accelerates and never slows down until the end. This is a movie that barely gives the viewer time to breathe.
The most interesting aspect of the Americans confrontation with terrorism is its asymmetry, especially after the hijacked freighter is joined by three US Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier, and a team of Navy SEALs. In contrast, the pirates arrive on a fishing boat and two small motor launches. Nantucketers will recognize all of these boats. The pirates' pursuit of the freighter even reminds one of a whaling hunt -- little boats chasing giant prey.
The asymmetry of the contest between the Americans and the terrorists is also reflected in the difficulty experienced by the large and well-armed Navy ships in tracking down and capturing their prey. All this weaponry, technology, and expense is stymied for most of the movie by a handful of pirates.
It may not auger well for the next crew captured by pirates that the Navy shows no hesitation in lying: their plan is clearly to kill or capture all of the terrorists. Offers to negotiate are only a ruse aimed at buying time for snipers to get into position. As a training film for pirates, the message here is simple: kill all your captives, take the money, and run. Let's hope Somali priates aren't going to the movies.
A powerful segment of the film is the sequence that unfolds when the pirates and Captain Phillips are crammed into a small lifeboat. The film does an excellent job of communicating the claustrophic sense of several men wedged into a small space for an extended period. If you suffer from a fear of being trapped in a small space, this would be a great time to top up your popcorn and soda.
The best performances are delivered by the actors in the roles of the pirates: young, afraid to disappoint their bosses, desperate to prove themselves, and unwilling to trust their captives.