In 2009, Somali pirates climbed aboard an American shipping vessel and took it hostage. It was all over the news and the rescue mission was both carefully executed and very dangerous. Director Paul Greengrass has adopted that story for the screen with Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Watch the trailer after the jump and then read my review.

This is a difficult story to adopt to film since everyone knows how it ends. History is so well documented by live media that the stories unfold before our eyes, so directors face a lot of challenges when trying to keep the suspense high. Paul Greengrass succeeds at doing this, resulting in a tense thriller that had me completely engrossed in the entire time.

Greengrass has already established himself as a solid action director having done the Bourne Ultimatum. And while I am not  a big Bourne fan, I would be lying if I said the action in those movies was bad. Greengrass is great at making the camera a character, observing and involved in the action up close, not just watching from above. He is also good at keeping track of everyone involved, not letting characters hide just because they aren’t directly involved. And that continues with Captain Phillips which ratchets up the action and intensity to levels matching Zero Dark Thirty

Surprisingly, the cast is strong in this movie, even though they are all relative unknown except for Hanks (and a cameo by Catherine Keener). Greengrass chose four first time actors to play the pirates, which was a smart choice. They wouldn’t have been nearly as scary had they been familiar faces. Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali do a great job as the pirate side kicks, and each gets a few scenes to develop their characters and really show their acting chops.

But Barkhad Abdi has earned himself a spot in Hollywood for his performance as the leader of the pirates, Muse. He is just a scrawny guy, but very confident. And Abdi got to act, with his character experiencing tremendous growth as he realized his plan was failing around him. His best scene comes early on once they board the ship, when he tells Hanks’ Phillips “I am the captain now.” At that moment, it was clear this was no ordinary pirate. This guy was determined and not going to let the Americans win easily. Abdi will be given an Oscar nomination for the performance and I hope it leads to many more roles for him.

However, his performance does lead me to my criticisms of the movie. When it comes down to it, this script portrays good guys and bad guys, but like all real life stories, this is not the case. Obviously, piracy and theft are bad, but the character Muse is much deeper than that. Through broken conversations at various times in the movie, we learn more about Muse’s motivation, but besides in a very early scene, we don’t really learn much about him and his role in his community.

Another thing I didn’t like was how little time is spent on the actual boat. The tables turn on the people in power so many times in this movie it is nearly unbelievable. And very quickly, the pirates cram Phillips into a little life boat where they spend more than half the movie. The boat set was really cool and is used in some interesting ways but all of that is over way too soon. I’d rather see more scenes there than in the life boat, even if the life boat scenes are key to the impending rescue.

And if this article on IGN.com is true, than I am disappointed. I really enjoyed the way Phillips was portrayed as a tough but brave captain, but this article implies he was far from the same character. This is no criticism of Phillips the man, as he did what most people would do. But it is too bad that the story in the article couldn’t be told and instead it needed to become a hero and villain action movie.

I am going to end this review with some thoughts on Tom Hanks.

Hanks is and remains my favourite actor and this movie almost doesn’t live up to the very high pedestal I put him on. He has some good scenes with the pirates but nothing revolutionary for his career. Until the final 10 minutes. Suddenly we see a side of Hanks I don’t recall ever seeing; true trauma and fear. His character Phillips remains calm throughout the whole ordeal but when it is over, he cracks and we see a performance that not many other than Hanks could pull off. It is chilling how good he is in the last scene, speaking with the doctors, shaking uncontrollably and breaking down in tears. The final 10 minutes are worth the price of admission just to see how good Tom Hanks is.

Overall, Captain Phillips is simply a well polished action thriller. While it touches on some ideas about Somali’s and heroism, it ultimately becomes a movie about the USA using big guns to win. Movies like this are normally saved for the summer, but the performances by Hanks and especially Abdi elevate this movie from a standard popcorn flick to high quality cinema. For the people who saw Gravity last weekend and want another thriller, there is no better choice than Captain Phillips right now.

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