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Movie Review: “Captain Phillips”

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Captain Phillips“Captain Phillips,” the new fact-based action thriller from director Paul Greengrass that dramatizes the rescue of a American sea captain from Somali pirates in 2009, is of a piece with two of last year’s better films, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo.”

The film concerns a real-life military incursion by the U.S. on the other side of the world, not all that long ago,  in which the U.S. shows brilliant military precision and the mission succeeds. After a decade of underwhelming Iraq War films- including the odious “Green Zone,” directed by Greengrass himself- Hollywood has now turned to quickly churning out quality movies whenever something happens that’s good news for America militarily.

It’s a strange phenomenon, especially as public opinion has changed so sharply on U.S. intervention abroad. I can’t speak to the morality of this Hollywood turn, but there’s no question that it’s led to better movies.

“Captain Phillips” is not as strong across the board as “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Argo,” but that’s a pretty high bar to clear. This is a tense, exciting, standout film, which I enjoyed a great deal more than I expected.

The film tells the story of an American merchant ship which was taken hostage by pirates off the cost of Somalia in April 2009, the first hijacking of an American-flagged ship since the 19th century. Later, the titular captain (Tom Hanks) was held aboard a life boat, while awaiting rescue from the U.S. Navy. Directed by Greengrass and adapted by ace screenwriter Billy Ray from Phillips’ memoir, the story is told is something resembling real time, bringing an unbelievable tension to the proceedings.

There’s already some controversy, both about whether the events of the film are factual and the question of whether or not Phillips was really the hero the movie claims. 

I’m sure there’s also much argument to come about whether the film endorses imperialism or comes down on the right side of geopolitical questions. And yes, there’s the requisite scene in which one of the hostage-takers gives a long speech about globalization and how the West’s looting of the world has made Somali piracy possible. But ultimately, this isn’t really a movie about politics.

Greengrass, also responsible for “United 93″ and the second and third “Bourne” films, is known for his “kinetic” style, which has often been a euphemism for “handheld,” “shaky cam,” and “complete visual chaos.” The director’s style is somewhat altered here, in which the handheld is there, which combined with the setting at sea, means you may end up seasick when you see it. However, the quick cuts are nowhere to be found. At no point is it difficult to tell what’s going on.

But what’s really driving the film is Tom Hanks. “Captain Phillips” is the best performance Hanks has given in many years, probably since “Catch Me If You Can” 11 years ago.

The most successful actor of the ’90s, both from a box office and Oscar standpoint, Hanks has spent most of the last few years either producing massive HBO miniseries, starring in subpar blockbusters based on Dan Brown novels, or directing the starring in the forgettable “Larry Crowne.” Sure, there was the “Toy Story 3″ voice performance, and the underrated “Charlie Wilson’s War,” but don’t even get me started on Hanks’ various appearances in “Cloud Atlas.”

But here, for the first time in years, is Hanks taking on a starring role, sinking his teeth into it and walking away. He gets to be tough, scared, and heroic in more than one way, all at different times. You’ll be hearing his name, once again, at Oscar time I’d imagine.

Hanks is the only person in the cast who’s any kind of household name. The four pirates are all played by unknown Somali immigrants, and all four make a strong impression as unique and memorable characters. Barkhad Abdi, as their leader, is especially a standout.

“Captain Phillips” is something of a bookend to “Black Hawk Down,” the 2000 Ridley Scott film about a different, much more ill-fated American excursion into that part of the world. It could have gone wrong in any number of ways, but did not.

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