1. There's a moment in Paul Greengrass' United 93, one of the best films of the last decade, in which we are invited not to sympathize with the hijackers of Flight 93, exactly, but at least take a look at them as humans, if just for a moment. They're monsters, but they're people, on that plane, too, also about to die. They're the villains—the ones who made this tragedy happen—and the movie treats them as such, but it doesn't treat them just as such. In its small way, in a way that feels truthful but not disrespectful, the film is so obsessed with reality, with what this would feel like, that it can't ignore their reality, even if it would like to. This is the greatness of Greengrass: When he's on his game, he's incapable of a false note. He's a documentarian of fiction.
2. Captain Phillips, Greengrass' best film since United 93, is ostensibly a cracker-jack thriller about the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, the kidnapping of its captain, Richard Phillips, by Somali pirates in April 2009, and the Navy's attempts to rescue him. And in that way, it works splendidly: The movie's level of tension approaches that of last year's Zero Dark Thirty, particularly that film's last 30 minutes, so ratcheted up that it's almost unbearable. But Greengrass is not the sort of filmmaker who can simply make a movie about heroic Americans coming to save a scared captain from mean pirate men. This is a man who sees the humanity —the fact—in everything. The movie doesn't pause or slow down to understand its characters. Its understanding is there in every frame. You never forget the stakes.
3. We meet Captain Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, as he's being taken to the airport by his wife, as they discuss their fears for their children and how new economic realities leave them wondering how their kids are going to make it the way they did. If you can get past Hanks' awkward accent—one that isn't a problem over the rest of the film—the tone is set: The world is changing, and not for the better. Once he reaches his shipping boat, en route to Mombasa, Phillips, a buttoned-up, rule-abiding stick-in-the-mud not especially admired by his crew, receives a warning about a heavily pirated area. Then he notices two blips on his radar screen. Then they're on his boat.
4. They're four men, and they're led by Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, played by Somali newcomer Barkhad Abdi as a scrawny, scared boy forced into puffing himself up into something resembling a man to survive. When we first meet Muse and his "crew," they're sleeping in huts, starving, desperate for work. When Somali warlords demand they take over a freighter for ransom, it's obvious this is a doomed enterprise, and just as obvious that Muse has no choice but to do it. By the time he and his men reach the Alabama, undernourished, sustained solely by khat, they're already exhausted and defeated. But they have guns, and they're desperate: They're extremely dangerous. A series of mistakes and misunderstandings ensue, and next thing you know, the pirates and Phillips are alone in a lifeboat, floating around lost and beaten, as the might of the U.S. military surrounds them.
5. It's here that Captain Phillips becomes so devastating. There is no "you're just like me speechifying" going on: Phillips and Muse don't come to a greater understanding because they're both so terrified of each other and the mess they find themselves in. But the movie understands. The movie, without ever underlining it, sees every angle, and while it never acts as if Phillips isn't someone worth rescuing, or as if these pirates aren't wrong, it doesn't rob them of their humanity, either. It knows why they're there, and how it was their only real option. As the movie careens toward its conclusion, it's increasingly clear that we haven't been watching an action thriller at all: We've been watching a tragedy. At the end, as everyone is destroyed, as Phillips collapses — in a raw, trembling scene for Hanks, who's as good as he's ever been — there is no triumph, no victory. Captain Phillips is about what happens in that contained space, between scared people who don't know how they got there. But it's also about how they got there. This is a great film.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.