There's a reason Tom Hanks continues to be one of the preeminent actors of his generation. Aside from the "Toy Story" movies, his choices can hardly be considered "safe," and as he continues to seek and conquer new challenges, viewers often reap the benefits.
"Captain Phillips" is no different. Based on the book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea" by Captain Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, Hanks plays the titular Phillips, a sea captain whose cargo ship is boarded by Somali pirates in April 2009. Initially Phillips, who's respected by his crew aboard the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Africa, is able to fend off the unwanted visitors using by-the-book diversionary tactics. But there are no weapons on board, and so Somalis Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee (Faysal Ahmed) and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) are able to get on the ship and take Phillips hostage.
With his crew following orders and hiding, Phillips uses cunning stall tactics and disinformation to keep the Somalis off-guard. Watching him outsmart the Somalis and keep a straight face leaves you smiling and full of tension: Smiling because Hanks, in all his likability, is extremely effective playing someone so clever, and tense because of the extreme danger Phillips and the rest of the crew are in.
With Hanks on top of his game again (though it's not a showy performance, it may well earn him his sixth Oscar nomination), and the actors playing the Somalis nicely holding their own in their screen debuts, the acting is top-notch all around. Director Paul Greengrass ("United 93") expertly paces the film to slowly build tension leading to the climax, and darn if you're not rapt in attention as the drama intensifies.
Though Greengrass has rightly been criticized for jerky camera movements and jagged editing ("The Bourne Supremacy"), here that style provides a gripping immediacy that immerses us in the cramped confines of the ship and, later, a notably smaller life boat. Additionally, neither the initial attack that Phillips is able to fend off — the Somalis boarding the Alabama — nor the arrival of the U.S. Navy feels rushed, which gives screenwriter Billy Ray's ("The Hunger Games") script time to develop characters and situations. This results in the viewer becoming emotionally invested, which is essential.
If you remember hearing about the Somali pirate attacks when they occurred but don't recall the details, do yourself a favor and don't look them up until after you've seen "Captain Phillips." The film will work better as a drama if you're unsure how it plays out, and you don't want to be thinking, "Hey, that's not what Wikipedia said happened!" when Hanks is outsmarting uninvited pirates.
What's more, this movie deserves your attention. It's a helluva story, told with competence by all involved. It's also the type of drama that gets nominated for writing, directing and acting Oscars. Watch it, then expect to see its name again come