Captain Phillips Review: Tom Hanks Brings Two Hours Of White-Knuckle Suspense

Captain Phillips is suspenseful — nails-bitten-to-the-nubs, take-no-bathroom-breaks suspenseful. This isn’t a surprising feat for director Paul Greengrass (any five minutes of the Bourne Ultimatum can confirm his pacing prowess), but considering that most moviegoers already know the ending to Captain Phillips' story, the suspense feels even more effective.

With little more than a decade of feature films under his belt, Greengrass has become known for two types of movies: pseudo-docudramas about everymen shoved into heroes' shoes, like United 93 or Sunday Bloody Sunday, and larger-than-life action spectacles about men born to jump from buildings — think all those Bourne movies. Captain Phillips falls into the first camp, and the fondness that both Greengrass and the film’s star, Tom Hanks, have for the everyday hero gives their collaboration a sense of inevitability. The film is impeccably made, and deserves the awards buzz it’s already getting. While there are bones to pick with a few scenes, and the plot stretches some truths, overall, this is a movie built by experts, and it shows.

Based on Richard Phillips’ memoir, Billy Ray’s screenplay follows Captain Phillips (Hanks) as he commands a giant container ship, the Maersk Alabama, through pirate-infested waters off Somalia on the way from Oman to Kenya. The film opens with Phillips at home in Vermont preparing for the trip, and his wife (Catherine Keener) driving him to the airport to catch his flight. The first 15 minutes are the movie's weakest by miles, between the couple's stilted dialogue about the dangers of the modern world, and Hanks' fleeting JFK Boston accent it is a concerning introduction to an otherwise masterful movie. Suffer through this brutal opening scene, moviegoers, and you will be rewarded. Luckily, it is not a precursor of things to come.

The first few days at sea are normal ones, though the imminence of the pirates' arrival is felt from our first moments aboard the ship. A quick but bleakly chilling scene on the Somalian mainland shows the team of pirates recruiting others to join them and suddenly the run-in between the pirate team and Phillips' men is portrayed as inevitable.

Aboard the Maersk Alabama, Phillips is aware of the threat. He sets out to prepare his men, and it is during an emergency drill that the practiced situation becomes a real-life emergency. The pirates first arrive in two skiffs, but only one chases down the cargo ship — guns firing, pressurized water jets shooting — in a scene as action-packed as any Bourne chase. Shot on an actual cargo ship in open water, Greengrass' commitment to authenticity pays off throughout the movie. 

The skiff's pirate crew is helmed by their gaunt and power-hungry leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi). A non-actor recruited for the role, Abdi's simmering performance is as real and complete as non-actor Dwight Henry's was in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Abdi portrays the slow sizzle of a powerless man who learns that power can be obtained through violence. After the pirates board the ship, Captain Phillips largely becomes a face-to-face struggle between two men, Phillips and Muse. Were Hanks not as familiar and famous as he is, his strong performance might have felt as authentic as Abdi's. 

Of course, no film adaptation of a real event is safe from controversy, no matter how good it is. While Hanks' version of Phillips is a 21st century American hero, the actual Phillips is embroiled in controversy. Maersk Alabama crew members claim Phillips ignored warnings to stay further off the coast of Somalia, and are now suing the shipping company, saying Phillips sailed the ship into dangerous waters in order to save time and money on the voyage. Phillips is a witness in the trial set to begin in December, just before Oscar announcements go out in January.

Another troubling aspect of the film is the vague strokes it uses to paint global conflict. The hijacking and hostage taking are emotionally effective, but not informative; almost no background is given about the global conditions that led to Somali piracy. Instead, the strife is largely presented as a conflict between good and evil: noble seamen vs. pirates, superhero-like Navy SEALS vs. cowardly kidnappers, Americans vs. others. 

These superficial errors are the fault of the script, but if you lift the hood of the movie, you will find otherwise impeccable mechanics. Greengrass has nearly perfected this type of storytelling, Hanks is the type of actor you can't help but root for, and Abdi delivers one of the most troubling and charged performances this year. Sure, there are slips and a few oversights, but as soon as you board the Maersk Alabama, you'll be too riveted to care. 

Captain Phillips premieres Friday October 11.