Movie review: “Captain Phillips” coasts in thrilling waters

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From the October 10, 2013 edition

“Captain Phillips” is an amazing movie based on an amazing true story, and kudos go to director Paul Greengrass for realizing this.

With help from a fine performance from Tom Hanks in the lead, he wrings remarkable tension with a rather straightforward telling of events as they actually happened. Of course, as is the nature of biopics, things get stickier when you turn a real person into a movie character and mold it to a narrative.

The events in question took place in the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, off the coast of Somali. Hanks portrays the titular captain, Richard Phillips. With a brief but humanizing opening, we see Phillips interacting with his wife (Catherine Keener) before embarking on a voyage that will take him and his crew down the coastline of Africa, a voyage through waters known for pirate activities.

In Somalia, we see these very pirates being recruited out of the desperation of their circumstances. One brash young Somali named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) joins a group looking for a big score.

Over the next two hours, a nail-biting scenario plays out as Muse and a few other gunmen board the Alabama.

Greengrass, who directed the superb second and third installments of the “Bourne” series, crafts a smart and sophisticated thriller that doesn’t rely on gimmicks. The intensity of the situation is palpable, as is the isolation of the sea.

He keeps a steady hand on the wheel, creating a very well-paced film that feels shorter than its 2-hour-15-minute runtime.

Perpetual Oscar nominee Hanks is at the top of his game, too. His Phillips is armed only with a calm demeanor, and watching him masterfully try to steer the situation to safety with words is a pleasure. When he finally breaks down, it’s a moment that may ensure another Oscar nomination.

Abdi also is electric, applying a humanity beneath the surface of cold-blooded pirate, which only adds to the tension.

The portrayal of Phillips as a hero has been called into question by crew members who blame the captain for putting the ship in harm’s way to begin with, but such is the nature of a biopic.

While the truth may be lost in haze, “Captain Phillips” is a sharply focused thriller well worth the voyage.