True-life thriller ‘Captain Phillips’ delivers the suspense

Telling the dramatic events of a person’s true life story is always a challenge. Making it into a thriller, I can imagine, is even more daunting. Director Paul Greengrass and two time Oscar winner Tom Hanks set forth on this task as they created “Captain Phillips,” bringing the story of Captain Richard Phillips to life on the big screen.

Richard Phillips is the captain of an American container ship that is hijacked by Somali pirates in April 2009. Once the pirates are aboard the ship and take control over the whole operation, Captain Phillips is taken hostage on a lifeboat until the U.S. military is able to comply with the pirates’s every demand. After this takeover, the film has a tight grip on the viewer. Even when the outcome of the story is known, watching it happen is still an intense ride of suspense. Only watching the trailer, general moviegoers may mistake this for an action film. While it has action, a majority of the film involves sitting and watching these characters strategize to survive while they wait for the other side to make their move.

Director Paul Greengrass — of “The Bourne Ultimatum” fame — has made a name for himself in the action genre by being one of the few in the field who can use “shaky cam” effectively. I watch a ton of action movies — probably more than any man ever should — and, when watching, I’m upset by the number of scenes I would have loved if I’d been able to see them smoothly on screen. Instead, directors often have this fascination with making their cinematographers shoot scenes seemingly in an earthquake.

Greengrass, on the other hand, has mastered this technique. His style puts you in the action making you feel levels of panic and suspense without losing your lunch in the process. He creates a breathless atmosphere while also making you care for the characters at the center of it all.

This is where Hanks comes in. If you’re not interested in the tension, see the movie for Hanks’ performance. Interestingly, the character of Richard Phillips is not made out to be a hero of any kind. He is just a normal guy who has fallen under terrible circumstances, and it shows. Hanks makes this character as innocent and terrified as possible; the last 10 minutes of this ride showcase some of the best acting he has ever done.

When I saw that the running time was over the two-hour mark before walking in, I became a tad nervous. These types of situational stories tend to last around 90 minutes so as not to bore the audience. I’m happy to report that it was not a problem with “Captain Phillips.” The script gave plenty of opportunities for exploration of the protocols the ship’s crew and military needed to follow in order to make sure everything turned out for the best. The political depth of this film took me by surprise, but it never once beats you over the head with an agenda of any kind.

The story also took an interesting turn when it showed some of the backstory of the pirates who hijack the ship. There are whole scenes devoted to just them, in which we get to see the struggles of the culture and the motivation behind their actions. This makes us feel a bit of sympathy for them, knowing the drive for their actions, even though they are clearly the antagonists of the story. With the pirates being a main focus of the film,newcomer Barkhad Abdi has a chance to shine as the rebel leader. If this is a showcase of his raw talent, then I hope to see this man in many films in the future.

With a perfectly paced build-up and a wonderfully executed conclusion, “Captain Phillips” surprised me on many levels. While almost every aspect of the movie is above average, I’d say that the main reason to go out of your way to see it is for Hanks’ performance. I could not praise him enough for his work here and I hope an Oscar nomination is in his future.