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With: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, Max Martini, Omar Berdouni, Mohamed Ali, Issak Farah Samatar
Written by: Billy Ray, based on a book by Richard Phillips, Stephan Talty
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use
Running Time: 134
Date: 10/11/2013

Captain Phillips (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Sea Outside

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Captain Phillips is coming out during awards season and may be angling for some year-end trophies. This means that it's being presented in a very serious and somber manner, which can be off-putting. Surprisingly, it's a very effective and entertaining thriller, with a few moments even better than that. If it had been a bit lighter of touch and a bit more compact, it might have been a great film.

It's based on the true story of Richard Phillips, a merchant mariner who transported goods through pirate infested waters near Somalia. In 2009, his ship was hijacked and Phillips was taken hostage aboard his own lifeboat.

That's about it. Billy Ray adapted the screenplay from Phillips' book, and his skill with stories like these -- see Shattered Glass and Breach if you don't know what I'm talking about -- comes in handy. Director Paul Greengrass tunes into it perfectly. The movie uses realism as a storytelling tool, but not necessarily as the final say on things. In other words, "realism" isn't the point.

When the pirates board the ship, Phillips uses his walkie-talkie to play the chess game to his advantage, broadcasting secret instructions to his men, or making bogus phone calls designed to look like he has more advantages than he really has. The chess game continues on the lifeboat, with Phillips using his knowledge to further distract and confuse his captors.

Tom Hanks plays Phillips, and it's one of the finest of his serious roles, mainly because the stakes aren't so high. He's not trying to save or change the world; he's just trying to save himself. Hanks transforms himself into a merchant mariner, picking up specific little characteristics as well as a commanding leadership quality.

But his best scene comes at the end when he survives his ordeal. (I hope I'm not giving anything away here... obviously Phillips survived to write a book.) He has a moment in a naval infirmary when everything just catches up with him at once. It's a profound moment that any great actor could be proud of.

Greengrass cast four Somalian immigrants -- living in a largely Somalian community of Minneapolis -- as the pirates: Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, and notably Barkhad Abdi as the leader, Muse. Greengrass does a better job of introducing them than he did the terrorists in United 93; he wonders about their living conditions and their plight, and why they would resort to piracy. He realizes that they're scared and human. They're not just evil guys.

Some of the movie's best scenes come in the exchanges between Muse and Phillips; while they never exactly become friends, their words help ground both characters and make the conflict all the more interesting and tense. Muse is suspicious and smart, and Abdi makes quite an impact playing him. He holds his ground with Hanks, and one only hopes that he can find more work in Hollywood. (Amazingly, most of the rest of the cast are relatively unknown as well. Only Catherine Keener, who shows up in the early scenes as Mrs. Phillips, is a familiar face.)

Though the movie is long, Greengrass uses his experience from The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum to generate suspense. Captain Phillips has a good rhythm that rarely flags. Better still, Greengrass is the only filmmaker in Hollywood -- repeat, the only one -- who actually knows how to use hand-held shaky cameras. He's always aware of spatial relationships between characters and their environment, and his camerawork always enhances this rather than obscuring it.

Actually, in many ways this movie is the culmination of his entire career, a great combination of entertainment, politics and realism. He has become a filmmaker worth watching. And with more and more serious movies (most of them based on true stories) coming out in the next few months, Captain Phillips is one we can rely on for actual emotions over messages.

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