Alternately calm, clever, desperate and terrified, Tom Hanks delivers a remarkable profile in courage in "Captain Phillips."
News accounts have already provided all the spoilers for this film adaptation of the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. freighter by Somali pirates off the African coast, and the unbelievable rescue of the ship's hostage captain by Navy SEALS.
Between "Zero Dark Thirty" and a rash of new releases, Navy SEALS are the coolest action heroes in movies right now.
But brilliant director Paul Greengrass turns the usual formulas inside out, creating an antisuperhero story this time. Instead of relying on his experience directing two "Bourne" films, he goes back to his "United 93," claustrophobically set inside that doomed airliner on 9/11.
This film, too, is about being in a confined space commandeered by terrorists. This time they're young Somali men recruited from their villages by warlords to "make some money" by taking over a ship and demanding ransom.
It's a new sort of piracy - the cost of doing business in the modern world. The pirates - played by Barkhad Abdi, Barkad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali, all Somali-born American nonactors found in a Minneapolis casting call - hold their own with the Oscar-winning Hanks as things begin to unravel and tempers begin to fray.
Despite the singsong assurance that "things are gonna be all right," by Muse (Abdi), the self-appointed "captain" of the pirated ship and then a commandeered lifeboat, things ratchet up considerably when the lifeboat is surrounded by the U.S. Navy.
The pirates know it's over. But will they kill Capt.Phillips before meeting their own fate?
In yet another landmark role, Hanks again raises the bar as the captured captain relying on his wits to survive, second by second, often with a literal gun to his head through the ordeal. Hand-held cameras and jangling close-ups in sweltering, confined space add a touch of seasickness to the terror for the audience.
Hanks sheds his movie-star glow to morph into mundane Richard Phillips. The performance is inspiring precisely because of its reminder that true heroism stems from pretty flawed raw material. It's about being a better person than you ever hoped or dreamed of being. Courage isn't manufactured in the special effects department, but found deep in the human heart, in regions previously unexplored.
"Captain Phillips" arrived in movie theaters the same night Brian Williams on "NBC Nightly News" was paying tribute to teachers for their heroism for throwing their bodies over their students when a crazed gunman appeared in their school in Connecticut or a tornado ravished their town in Oklahoma.
Actually, their true courage can be found in facing their classrooms each day, doing their tiny parts to touch our kids and make society a better place. Sadly, that job still has a long way to go in a culture churning out crazed young men so easily able to get their hands on powerful automatic weapons.
An even more powerful profile in courage was noted by the media -NBC, PBS, John Stewart - when Malala Yousafzai wasn't chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize last week.
The Pakistani school girl, now 16, wasn't disappointed by the loss - she felt she was too young, said the victim of a Taliban shooting whose miraculous recovery adds to her almost otherworldly, Gandhi-like presence.
Instead, she used the opportunity to continue spreading her message about women's rights to be educated. That Malala was shot for expressing this view - or that her message has to be a crusade at all, instead of a basic truth - speaks to cruel imbalances in our world.
Constantly facing death while selflessly living her life for a higher purpose, hers is the true face of courage, reminding us that even the best actors in movies are just putting on a show.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.