Much like the captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, who was rescued by the U.S. Navy after his ship was set upon by Somali pirates in April 2009, "Captain Phillips" appears to have been in good hands. With Tom Hanks in front of the camera and Paul Greengrass behind it, the drama based on the notorious hijacking is earning excellent reviews.
The Times' Kenneth Turan writes, "this film does an impeccable job of creating and tightening the narrative screws. The result is so propulsive that you may find yourself looking at your watch not out of boredom but because you're not sure how much more tension you can stand." Greengrass, a veteran of fact-based dramas ("United 93," "Bloody Sunday"), "has also managed to include some subtle but unmistakable social commentary" and delivers "a film with an emotional quotient that manages to combine the dynamics of human behavior under stress with our affinity for the nuts and bolts of realistic action."
Meanwhile, in the title role as the besieged ship's captain, Hanks gives an exceptional performance, Turan said. "As good as Hanks has been in the past, there are moments here, especially near the conclusion, that are deeper and more emotional than anything we've seen from this actor before."
In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis says "Captain Phillips" "shakes you up first with its style and then with its ideas." The film "begins as something of a procedural about men at work and morphs into a jittery thriller even as it also deepens, brilliantly, unexpectedly, into an unsettling look at global capitalism and American privilege and power." Greengrass, Dargis writes, "works you over like a deep-tissue pugilist with smash cuts, racing cameras and a propulsive soundtrack so you feel the urgency as well as see it."
As for Hanks, "There's something so unforced about him that it can seem as if he’s not delivering a performance, just being Tom Hanks. This feeling of authenticity, however well honed and movie made, dovetails with Phillips's gruff likability to create a portrait of a man trying to keep himself, his crew and his ship together even as the world he knew comes violently undone."
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr says Greengrass, "in his steadiest, most focused work to date, creates an aura of urgency so compelling, so rooted in detail, that we temporarily forget what we know and hold our breaths for two-plus hours of tightening suspense." Burr also agrees that the film offers more than patriotic-leaning action fare: "Greengrass has made something more complex than a flag-waver, although it can and will be taken as simply that by some. 'Captain Phillips' both stands in awe of the firepower and efficiency of America’s military and asks you to think about how it might look from the other side."
In terms of acting, Hanks delivers "one of his more reined-in performances," and newcomer Barkhad Abdi, playing the Somali pirate leader, "beautifully complements" him.
Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press, invoking "United 93," writes that "Greengrass has produced another expertly crafted, documentary-style film based on a real event." Hanks "delivers some of his finest work here, playing the Everyman role he does so well, in this case a fairly ordinary guy forced by circumstance to be a hero. And yet 'Captain Phillips' is a remarkably unsentimental film, with an emotional catharsis coming only at the very end, when we're all ready for some kind of release. This is where Hanks digs deepest as an actor."
Among the few dissenting voices is Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, who concedes that the film "is an intense and claustrophobic maritime adventure" and "may well earn Tom Hanks the Oscar nomination he’s so clearly striving for. But, he continues, "not far below the surface 'Captain Phillips' is also an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience, a film that’s not entirely happy with itself .… [A]s cinema it plays a lot like a knockoff of 'Zero Dark Thirty,' without the same ambition and scale and with dramatically lower stakes."
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