Since I’m not a news junkie, I don’t usually have to worry about spoilers regarding movies based on recent events. I was quite surprised to learn that Jay Moriarty had drowned in 2001 when watching Chasing Mavericks, and I knew even less about the events that take place in Captain Phillips. I knew Tom Hanks portrays the titular Captain Richard Phillips and at some point would be taken hostage by Somali pirates. Anyone who’s seen Greengrass’s United 93 knows the kind of authenticity he can bring to true-life events, and even with a PG-13 rating, Greengrass winds up delivering the year’s tightest thriller and the most suspenseful film since Argo.
Beginning the morning of March 28, 2009, Phillips has just received orders to report to the Port of Salalah in Oman to captain the Maersk Alabama cargo ship from Salalah to Mombasa. In Eyl, Somalia, Muse (Barkhard Abdi) has recruited three men to join him in hijacking the Maersk. Full of quick thinking, Phillips turns the raid into a game of cat and mouse after Muse refuses to accept an offer of $30,000 cash and a way off the ship in the lifeboat. Muse and his men take Phillips hostage aboard the lifeboat and soon the pirates are up against the Navy, while Phillips fears for his life.
To avoid spoilers, that’s all I will say about the plot. For anyone who knows what happens from this point should stay mum. Screenwriter Billy Ray (State of Play, Breach, Shattered Glass) adapts Phillips’ true-life account A Captain’s Duty (co-written by Stephan Talty) and keeps the action streamlined, even if condensed for screen time. Hanks, as Phillips, gives one of his best performances in years. But when doesn’t he? To fill the Somali pirate roles, Greengrass put out a casting call and Abdi, along with his fellow Somali actors, provide the necessary menace, but also happen to lend a surprising amount of humanity to their characters.
For anyone worried about the typical Greengrass shaky-cam, Captain Phillips is his most visually coherent film yet. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Christopher Rouse make sure you always know what’s going on, something especially worthy of applause considering how out of control the cinematography from Ackroyd was in Greengrass’s last film, Green Zone. It probably helps that Rouse has edited every Hollywood film Greengrass has directed. Admittedly, the beginning of the movie feels slightly padded, but once the pirates finally hijack the ship, it’s non-stop nail-biting tension. The Oscar race is officially underway.
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