Tom Hanks stars in "Captain Phillips," the story of a real-life hero whose ship was hijacked by Somali pirates. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman filed the following report for NY1.
A great many filmmakers - too many - use handheld camera to evoke a sensation of raw, this-is-really-happening immediacy. But director Paul Greengrass is unique. At a glance, his live-wire method may seem familiar, but the way he uses it, it's as expressive as the style of a superb novelist.
In movies like the Bourne films or "United 93," Greengrass keeps you off balance. He's a jittery poet of reality. And he proves that yet again in "Captain Phillips," his spiky, suspenseful thriller based on a shattering incident from 2009, when the crew of a U.S. cargo ship was held hostage by a band of Somali pirates armed with machine guns.
Early on, Greengrass echoes what he did in "United 93," letting us peek into the lives of both the victims and their attackers. Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, a veteran merchant mariner who still lives in his native New England.
The film then cuts to Somalia, a land of dust and poverty, where the pirates are recruited for their mission as if they were migrant farm workers. Greengrass doesn't have to fill in much about the violent, chaotic breakdown of Somalia to let us know that these men have little choice in life. Taking up arms to steal, or even to kill, is the central option their society has handed them.
One of the pirates, a young fellow named Muse, is played by Barkhad Abdi, who has the ravaged, bone-hungry face of a starving African child all grown up. That face haunts the movie, and so does Abdi's extraordinary acting. Muse is ruthless, forlorn, street-smart, naive, and even compassionate, all at the same time. In dramatic terms, he's the enemy, yet Abdi's performance keeps inspiring us to ask: How, in the modern world, did the violence Muse embodies become part of the family of man?
Phillips must guard his crew, negotiate with the pirates and keep his own fears in check, and Hanks acts with a minimalism that speaks volumes. We're wired into his every glance. Phillips sends the pirates on a wild goose chase throughout the massive ship, and the movie becomes a gripping life-or-death chess game. Who will survive? Who will outwit whom?
But in the second half, when Phillips is forced to board an enclosed lifeboat along with the pirates, the film's suspense begins to ebb away. It's not that Greengrass' electrifying style fails him. It's that the movie, tethered for close to an hour to the strategies and tensions aboard that lifeboat, keeps giving us things to observe, but maybe not so much to discover.