Tom Hanks stars as real life Captain Richard Phillips, the poor guy who was in charge of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that had the bad luck to be wading through the waters off the coast of Somalia when it was besieged by a gang of Somali pirates. Phillips wasn't trying to be a hero. He was terrified, to be sure, but he was adamant about following procedure and protecting his crew. As the captain of the ship, Richard Phillips was prepared to go down with it. And he almost did.
Paul Greengrass's "Captain Phillips" charts the story in bare-bones fashion. There is no underlying theme, no distracting sub-plot. The film begins when Phillips leaves his wife in rural Vermont and boards the ship off the coast of Africa, and takes the audience through the hijacking to the eventual rescue. That's it.
Much like his previous work on "United 93," Greengrass creates a realistic action piece with its roots planted firmly in a real-life drama. It's not an easy feat to accomplish without running the risk of exploiting the material, but Greengrass somehow manages to avoid doing so. There were moments here and there when "Captain Phillips" felt a little like an episode of "24," but as soon as that thought entered my head, there would be an overhead shot, or some particularly robust action sequence that would remind me just how very cinematic this film is.
Hanks, the only "name" actor in the film, is excellent as Phillips. He plays an everyman probably better than any working actor today, and that certainly comes across in his portrayal of Phillips, from the first few scenes with his wife to the "Holy Shit" look on his face when he realizes these pirates mean business. This guy could be our Dad, and we are in fear right along with him. Some scenes towards the end are truly harrowing and Hanks and company sell them right to the edge of our seats.
Kudos must be given to the quartet of novice actors who portray the Somali pirates. To be cast in your first movie along with Tom Hanks and, furthermore, be required to rough him up, would be somewhat intimidating for anyone, but these guys are so good they may as well be seasoned thespians. This film would not have been nearly as effective as it is if professional actors were cast as the marauding pirates.
The tech aspects of the film are terrific, with no distracting CGI or fancy camera tricks. Greengrass seems to save that kind of thing for his contributions to the "Bourne" franchise. He understands that distracting crap like that would take the viewer away from his story and his situation... and he is right. "Captain Phillips" is one realistic and unnerving voyage on the open sea, and one that I am absolutely thrilled I wasn't a passenger on.