Do we watch movies in the past or the present tense? The essential appeal of cinema is that we see events scrolling before us as if they're happening spontaneously under their own steam. But we're also aware that what we're watching is literally a recording of past events, of actors and objects caught in front of a camera. And film is still haunted, on however subliminal a level, by the classic narrative mode of written fiction: “He said…”

So a film has to do something specific if it seeks to create an exceptional impression of things happening in the absolute moment. That's a matter of stripping away or defusing the cinematic rhetoric that reminds us we're watching a mediated fiction, that one way or another maintains a drama in a virtual “past tense.” Films that aim for such intensified immediacy strive to transcend conventional realism for what you might call “actualism.” That is, they seem to show us events that are actually happening as we watch—as in the French actuellement, “right now.”

Perhaps it's in reaction to the distancing effects of blockbuster cinema—and the prevalence of manifestly fake CGI spectacle—that we're currently seeing a spate of dramas fixated on the intensity of the here and now. In particular, there's a new crop of immersive stories about crisis moments. One is J.C. Chandor's peril-at-sea drama All Is Lost, which heightens the immediacy of its action by dispensing with dialogue. Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is a hyper-artificial example of the mode, with its extended elastic takes and simulation of real time—although the result actually resembles a quasi-mystical theme park ride.

Captain Phillips

Then there's Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass—arguably contemporary cinema's reigning master of actualism. There are moments of this effect in his two Bourne films and in Green Zone (10), but Greengrass has made three features that properly belong in the actualist vein, all of them minute reconstructions of real-life crises. The first was Bloody Sunday (02) about a notoriously violent day in the Northern Ireland conflict; the second was United 93 (06) which tackled 9/11 by focusing on the events on one plane as an intensified chamber drama.

In Captain Phillips, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray document the hijacking by Somali pirates of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama in April 2009. The film opens with Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) at home in Vermont, setting out for his next voyage, from Oman to Kenya, and discussing with his wife (Catherine Keener) how his job has changed of late. Times are tough, the shipping business is that much more competitive, you need to be strong out there… This dialogue makes for the one clunky section of the film, but it serves to establish the workaday character of Phillips, a domestically grounded professional rather than a conventionally strong or compelling personality—and it's as a professional that Greengrass is interested in him. It's the kind of everyday flesh-and-blood part that Hanks excels at, and Phillips's likeable mundanity is further established in a nice detail—this is a guy who listens to Eric Clapton for pleasure.

When we cut to Eyl, Somalia, the politics come further into focus. We see young Somalis living in stark conditions at a shanty-style encampment. They're fishermen fallen on hard times, now obliged to practice piracy at the behest of local warlords who pressure them to bring in the biggest bait possible or face the consequences. Whether you're a professional mariner in the wealthy West or an African turned predator because there's no other possible living, you're at the command of market economics.

The film doesn't soften the fact that the four pirates who attack the Alabama are brutal, desperate young men—but, unlike much news coverage, it makes us aware who they are, and what's behind their contempt for the powerful nations that they're nevertheless mesmerized by (the hijackers' leader Muse is convinced he can buy himself a ticket to a new life in the United States). These renegade fishermen are bitter at seeing these monolithic American ships sail along their coast, and feel their profession has been destroyed by wealthy countries fishing their waters. This is a story about globalization and its discontents.

Captain Phillips

It's also a film about the moment, and the detail of the moment. In Greengrass's films, every action has its consequence, and every action must be grounded in a punctilious understanding of how events happen, and how they fit together. The film is very much about the business of modern sea-going—which in this case involves scanning email updates of local risks and tightening up security accordingly. Phillips is a highly competent, dedicated specialist—and a stickler for protocol, which doesn't always endear him to his new crew (there's a telling scene early on in which he quietly but firmly reminds them not to exceed their 15-minute coffee break). When Phillips later acts courageously, or devises ingenious ploys to outwit the enemy, it's not because he's an action movie hero—just a professional, who knows his ship and his duties inside out. This is, in a sense, a film about management in general, and crisis management more specifically.

The pirates too emerge as professionals, even though these seamen have moved into a new and dangerous field in which there's no established code of practice.  Their first attempt to board the Alabama fails, thanks to a ploy of Phillips, but they return with a more secure craft. That's when we realize just what a daunting task these four men, exposed to the waves, are taking on in boarding this leviathan of a ship; this is a David and Goliath story, in which David is doomed to lose. At the very least, they're extremely courageous, with the determination that comes of economic desperation. Their young leader Muse is played with a keen, acerbic ferocity by newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Muse wants to establish himself as the new captain of the situation, and can't resist taunting Phillips, whom he calls “Irish.” Muse is aware there's no time to know his enemy, but his curiosity—his desire to let Irish know who he is, that he's not just some faceless specter with a gun—gives the men's face-offs a relishable sharpness.

Once the crisis kicks in, we're carried along not just by the momentum of events, but by the precision with which they're depicted. Greengrass is scrupulous about making us confident that we're watching a reconstruction of known events in a known order. His actualism is nothing if not immersive—Christopher Rouse's whiplash editing, Barry Ackroyd's camera pelting down corridors and ladders or rocking with the sea, the dramatic enclosure that kicks in when Phillips is taken captive and the action cuts to the claustrophobically enclosed capsule of a lifeboat.

The film's most brilliant stroke, arguably, comes at the end—and here's a spoiler warning of sorts, although it's hardly a secret that Richard Phillips lived to record the ordeal in his book A Captain's Duty, on which the film is based. Phillips is freed, the day is saved, the rescuing SEALs let out a cheer. But where a more mainstream account of events would have gone for a triumphalist payoff, Greengrass gives us something more truthful—Phillips, blindfolded, sits shaking, covered in blood, for the moment a shattered man. Survival has a price in crisis situations, and that price is trauma.