Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum) has crafted a truly tense thriller about the 2009 true life story of piracy on the dangerous high seas. Tom Hanks stars as the titular Captain Richard Phillips whose freighter ship, the Maersk Alabama, is hijacked and held hostage by Somali pirates. What unfolds is a tightly executed nautical story as Captain Phillips proves itself a truly effecting dramatization of human and economic desperation in one impossible situation.
The harrowing story is much more than the marketing has let on. The ship's hijacking and taking hostage is really only half the story. Greengrass flawlessly balances the motives and thoughts of Hanks' Phillips with that of the pirates. Each of the four men have clear, often divergent, motivations. In the hands of a less skilled filmmaker, these pirates could easily devolve into caricatures and stereotypical foreign, scary villains. The pirates are given just as much humanity as the frightened crew fearing for their lives is.
Like his previous real-life adaptation, United 93, Greengrass takes a straightforwardness to unfolding the material in line with his documentary and journalistic background. We see the desperation, ignorance, and futility in the pirates' eyes and through their tempered acting. Muse (played by Barkhad Abdi), the de facto leader of the pirates, is particularly compelling, being given a nice level of depth and character subtlety. He matches Hanks' hardened leader well as the two face off constantly at each other's odds.
Billy Ray's sharp scripting and Greengrass' fast-paced style create a thrilling sense of tension and vulnerability. Hanks plays the heroically everyman Phillips with soft touches. We see him at every level of humanity. His family life, peckish attention to detail, and strong command as captain are played smartly and with nuance. Hanks puts on a clinic of emotional ranges as the held captive victim. One remarkable scene unfolds after Phillips' fate is revealed. Greengrass lingers on the captain's aftermath, his shock, and demeanour in a quietly manic unbroken take. This simple exploration of humanity and peril is superbly effective after tying up the plot's resolution.
There's not much of a false note in over two hours of Captain Phillips' running time. From Hanks driving to the airport, to a harrowing nighttime set Navy SEAL rescue in the final act ripped from Zero Dark Thirty, Greengrass' expertly constructed docudrama is intensely cinematic and unsentimental in how it recounts the journey of the Alabama ship, its hijacking, crew, captain, and rescue.
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