It's tough to keep a modern audience on the edge of their seats for over two hours, and Paul Greengrass has a pretty rich history of managing just that - but even action thrillers like The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum and dramas based on real events like Bloody Sunday and United 93 feel like a warm-up after you've seen the director's latest, Captain Phillips.
All the usual phrases apply: white-knuckling, heart-pounding, breath-stopping -- but, until you've sat through all 134 minutes, you won't quite understand what it means to be physically exhausted by a movie. This is immersive filmmaking at its finest -- a true story brought to life with such unrelenting tension and meticulous craft that it's hard not to cry once the credits roll, solely out of relief for your clenched muscles and gritted teeth.
Greengrass wastes very little time setting up the circumstances: Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a laid-back Vermont merchant mariner and captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama. He's called away to a mission that requires transit around the Horn of Africa, knowing full well that the area is saturated with Somali pirates. With a combination of POV and handheld shots, Greengrass quickly sets up the two sets of crew members: Somalis preparing to depart from Eyl and Phillips' crew, running checks and drills at their captain's urging. In very few scenes, Greengrass proves a level-headed ability to communicate the intricacies of each group, the facets of their characters, and their cumulative dynamics, which makes the ensuing action and the internal struggles among separate crews that much more plausible.
By the time the pirates lock in on and pursue the Maersk Alabama, you're completely entranced -- gripped by the terror of knowing what ensues, but also in awe of the tenacity and intelligence shown by both Phillips the Somali captain Muse (played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who delivers an incredibly menacing and surprisingly poignant performance). Hanks exquisitely embodies the no-nonsense Phillips -- a man who knows full well he's responsible for his crew, and acts as peacekeeper, negotiator and bulletproof vest for every man on his watch. It's an inspiring performance, for both its lack of vanity and its straightforward tribute to one man's incredible bravery and heroism.
What's most incredible about Captain Phillips is that it weaves a thick, borderline unbearable amount of suspense despite the media saturation of the true story. Greengrass, Hanks and Abdi weave a spell so powerful it strips you of familiarity and fact and forces you to simply roll with the narrative, like riding out so many waves on the Gulf of Aden. The combination of documentary, military procedural, and action styles feels both familiar and cinematic: it's a high-seas thriller set in a foreign land, but Greengrass manages to engross his audience to the point of palpable plausibility. This is a career best for both Greengrass and Hanks, and it's a masterfully crafted thriller on every level.
Captain Phillips hits theaters on October 11. For more on this year's New York Film Festival, hop over here.
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