A clash of two worlds. That's the underlying theme running all through the heart of Captain Phillips, the new thriller from Paul Greengrass, that documents the 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship off the coast of Somalia by four desperate young men at the end of their rope. This is the clash of a poverty stricken third world where men are rounded up at gunpoint and herded into an every day life of piracy, who then dared to go up against the power of the American military in all its might. It was a battle doomed to failure for one side, yet that these guys went through with it anyway sends a message to the rest of the world about the depths of the darkness they faced back home if they didn't.
Tom Hanks stars as Captain Richard Phillips in this story we all remember from just 4 years ago, that happened to be the first recorded incidence of piracy against an American ship in over 100 years. Greengrass tells us what happened using his signature shakicam, faux documentary style, perfected from the Bourne series, that seems to have infiltrated action films in the wake of those movies ever since. Despite the copycat work however, Greengrass is the real deal as he's demonstrated in his other great films, including the highly acclaimed United 93. In retelling this dramatic event, it draws comparison to last year's procedural Zero Dark Thirty (another mission involving Navy Seals), but Greengrass ups the tension here with a dramatic intensity that keeps your heart racing the entire two hours and nine minutes. From the moment Phillips and his crew spot the approaching pirates it's an adrenaline shot in the arm that never lets up. With this and last week's Gravity, it's been an anxiety fueled two weeks at the movies for American audiences.
Also like Gravity, this film continues the fall's trend of harrowing survival stories, following a summer filled with end of the world apocalypse movies, and featuring a signature Hollywood star in the lead role. Here that's Hanks of course, who's become such an American icon that he's often taken for granted, but now he reminds us what a great actor he really is, and he creates in Richard Phillips, no matter what disputes exist over the real man, a fully realized, intelligent, savvy, and embattled average guy (Hanks's specialty) who's overcome with an enormous emotional conflict and must fight to survive in any way he can. We empathize with him in every scene, as he cleverly tries to lead the pirates off the ship, spare his crew, and then as he's taken hostage and watching the Somalis interact with each other, he gradually and wordlessly realizes the depth of their naivete over what they're facing, even as they remain armed and very dangerous. It's a terrific performance, understated yet extremely emotional and he's got another Best Actor nomination in the bag for this.
For their part, the unknown Somali actors (all in their film debuts) hold their own with Hanks, especially Barkhad Abdi as the leader Muse, who remains cocky and clever, but desperate and sad at the same time, never quite grasping the full effect of the mess he's gotten them into, yet even when confronted with it, feeling and communicating effectively that there is no other choice for these men. This is their life and they die here or they die back home. Even though the pirates are always threatening and dangerous, you understand that these are people from a part of the world where literally no other options exist, and as their inevitable fate closes in on them it comes with both relief and a sense of despair for the wasted youth and possible potential that this life could have fostered if given even the slightest opportunity.
Captain Phillips is an outstanding thriller and a draining emotional survival tale that will stay with you for days. Paul Greengrass continues to show off his unmatched ability to mix procedural with effective performances and heartpounding suspense in a true life story that, even though we already know, seems as if we've never seen before. One of the best films of the year.
* * * 1/2