Movie review: 'Captain Phillips,' 3.5 stars
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
A poet of chaotic realism, Paul Greengrass sets his refined action-movie sights on the most famous hijacking of recent years in "Captain Phillips."
The director of "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93," not to mention two Jason Bourne movies, is plenty familiar with the challenges of bringing real-world events to the big screen, capturing moments of tension and strife with his characteristic shaky cam.
If "Captain Phillips" doesn't represent a new challenge per se, it's still a leap forward for Greengrass and further proof that he has mastered the art of the docudrama.
Of course, Greengrass is helped by Tom Hanks' terrific performance as Capt. Richard Phillips, the officer in charge of the Maersk Alabama shipping vessel hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. The movie chronicles the subsequent harrowing four-day ordeal from a fair-minded perspective, considering the precarious circumstances that forced four Somali teens into piracy as equally as it does the great mortal fear faced by the captain.
Like all of Greengrass' work, the movie has a lived-in feel, with the camera weaving through every crevice of the ship. It's utterly convincing, with a high degree of verisimilitude in its portrait of life on the vessel and believable personalities handling adverse circumstances in decidedly human ways. There are no superheroes here and no easy answers, just scared people thrust together by terrible events.
Hanks' Phillips is a stern everyman, likable and serious-minded with a strong sense of honor and duty. He's a professional in every sense who seems unflappable under fire. But there's an undercurrent of fear that sets Hanks' work apart.
His character must stare death in the face. It's not an easy proposition, and the actor will likely earn another Oscar nomination because he so ably transitions through the stages of grief that flood forth when a gun is pointed at your head.
Newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who plays lead pirate Muse, and his counterparts give comparably nuanced performances, making the most of narrative arcs that a lesser movie would deny them. We root for Phillips but we understand the desperation that led these young men to such an unfortunate place.
A resolute focus on the characters' shared journey, pinpoint-precise editing and expert cinematography both large-scale and small give "Captain Phillips" the sort of epic, immersive scope offered by the best cinematic entertainments.
It's a top-notch genre effort, the second in a row after last week's "Gravity," and that's rarer than you might think.