Anyone who grew up in the ‘90s and played Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64 remembers one of the tensest levels in the game taking place aboard a frigate, with James Bond needing to rescue hostages. No such hostage scene existed in the actual movie, but the first act of the incredibly tense Captain Phillips gives audiences the feel of it better than a Bond movie possibly could.
Based on a true story from 2009, Captain Phillips tackles the tale of four Somali pirates who hijacked a cargo ship, and the captain (played here by Tom Hanks) who did everything he could think of to save his ship and his crew.
Director Paul Greengrass has made an art out of handheld action, with The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Green Zone, but his most apt prior experience was the compelling dramatization of the 9/11 hijackings, United 93. With that film, he was tasked with telling a dark, true story of hostages that many audiences had recently watched on live TV, while being gripping enough to distract viewers from remembering that they knew how it ended. He does the same with Captain Phillips: whether you watched it all go down live or not, knowing what happens won’t detract from the experience.
Greengrass very smartly shows the cruel and desperate daily lives of the Somalis before focussing the point-of-view upon Phillips, and it goes a long way toward making tense situations much more gripping and tragic. Phillips is fighting for his life, but the pirates are fighting for theirs, too.
Tom Hanks gives a fantastic performance as Phillips, as audiences have come to expect from him. He’ll likely be up for another Oscar. The four pirates, played by Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Mahat M. Ali, all give convincing and haunting performances. Abdi, especially, is absolutely riveting as the leader of the pirates.
Captain Phillips may well be the tensest movie of the year. The second act slows somewhat, due to a restricted setting that the trailers sadly gave away, but the movie’s opening hour and closing thirty minutes are not for the weak of nerve. Playing Nintendo 64 never felt like this.