Like in United 93, director Paul Greengrass’ gripping chronicle of events on board the hijacked 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, there’s an unmistakable sense of urgency that runs through every frame of Captain Phillips. A harrowing account of the 2009 storming of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates, this live wire, time bomb of a film grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go till the end.
Tom Hanks, delivering possibly his strongest performance since Cast Away, stars as Rich Phillips, captain of the American freighter Maersk Alabama that’s making its way from Oman to Mombassa. In a terrific scene that has all the thrills and the immediacy of a documentary, four armed Somali pirates hijack the vessel despite the best efforts of Phillips and his crew to shoo them off.
Without sentimentalizing them, Greengrass takes care to flashback to the desperate conditions of the Somalis’ lives, asking you to consider their limited options before dismissing them simply as villains. By pitting Phillips directly against the frail but ferocious leader of this band, Muse (first-timer Barkhad Abdi), the director personalizes a terrifying experience. Tension mounts as the pirates’ ransom plan begins to crumble, and they take off with Phillips in a cramped lifeboat, demanding millions for his safety.
Using jerky hand-held camera moves and brisk editing, Greengrass evokes fear and claustrophobia as he thrusts us into the center of the action. Hanks keeps Phillips calm and grounded for the most part, a veteran skipper trained to think on his feet. Then in the film’s final 15 minutes, as Phillips succumbs to post-traumatic stress, Hanks is nothing short of riveting. He has a worthy co-star in Abdi who is fascinating as the fidgety, desperate pirate leader.
Greengrass, who brought an unlikely cocktail of kinetic action and real feeling to the second and third films in the Bourne trilogy, strips this story bare in a way that he’s able to say something important about the unfair world we live in. He gives Captain Phillips the depth required to be more than just a story of heroism and bravery.
I’m going with four out of five. It’s brutal, edge-of-the-seat filmmaking that you cannot afford to miss.