Movie Review: “Captain Phillips”

Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus
Paul Greengrass

There’s an inordinate amount of movies based on true stories being released this season (even more so than usual), and Tom Hanks stars in two of them. But while his appearance as Walt Disney in the upcoming drama “Saving Mr. Banks” is likely considered the higher profile role, it’s hard to imagine how the actor will be able to top his brilliant, all-in performance as the title character in “Captain Phillips.” Though the film suffers from a bloated runtime and is a tad one-sided in its depiction of the antagonists, “Captain Phillips” is nonetheless a gripping hostage thriller that boasts some of the year’s finest performances, not only by Hanks, but his amateur co-stars as well.

Based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of an American-flagged cargo ship by Somali pirates and the remarkable bravery of Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) in deterring their efforts, the movie begins with the MV Maersk Alabama setting sail on a routine trip around the Horn of Africa. Recognizing the dangers that exist in those waters, Phillips orders his crew to practice prevention tactics against possible hijackers, only for the drill to become a real-world situation when he notices two skiffs approaching in the distance, each carrying four Somali pirates with automatic weapons. When one of the boats succeeds in attaching a ladder to the Alabama, the pirates – led by charismatic captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi) – board the cargo ship and take control, forcing Phillips to help locate the rest of his hidden crew members. But when things don’t go as planned for the desperate hijackers, Muse takes Phillips hostage and escapes on the ship’s lifeboat, leading to a tense standoff between the Somali pirates and the U.S. Navy.

Director Paul Greengrass has a knack for dramatizing real-life events (as evidenced in “Bloody Sunday” and the excellent “United 93”), and that success continues with “Captain Phillips,” throwing the audience right into the middle of the action docudrama-style in order to best capture the intensity of the situation. Greengrass also excels at creating a sense of claustrophobic tension, and though the first hour makes for some captivating material as Phillips and his crew face off against the pirates, once the story moves into the lifeboat, he really ratchets up the suspense. It’s incredibly effective, perhaps even more so than Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” but whereas that movie knew when to call it quits, the final act of “Captain Phillips” is dragged out to the point of tedium, running about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be.

Even when the film is being stretched beyond its breaking point, however, Tom Hanks never falters. This is without a doubt his best performance in over a decade. The final 10 minutes alone pack such an emotional wallop that it practically guarantees him another Oscar nomination, and his work throughout is a stark reminder why he’s still one of the finest actors in the business. Additionally, all four of the actors portraying the Somali pirates do a great job considering it’s their first time in front of a camera, but Barkhad Abdi in particular has such a commanding screen presence that it wouldn’t be completely out of the question to see his name bandied about as a potential candidate for Best Supporting Actor. And though you shouldn’t discount the contributions that Greengrass has made to the picture, or Billy Ray’s taut screenplay for that matter, it’s the performances that make “Captain Phillips” must-see viewing for any movie lover.