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When the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates in April of 2009 it made international news, and for good reason: it was the first time that an American ship had been hijacked by pirates since the early 1800s. At the time, everybody acknowledged that it was a horrible event, but I believe that very few people actually realized how terrifying and traumatic this hijacking was. Captain Phillips forces us to watch this story unfold with almost unbearable tension. It’s a first-rate thriller that would not have succeeded without the powerful performance by Tom Hanks or director Paul Greengrass’ ability to make viewers feel directly in the midst of the chaos.

Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a family man who works as the captain of a merchant vessel. The vessel’s latest trajectory is to sail around the coast of Africa, an area that is known for being heavy pirate territory. One morning, he sees two small skiffs, carrying armed men, headed for his ship. His crew attempts to implement the ship’s defensive measures, but it can only holds off the pirates for so long. Soon, the pirates have boarded the ship and they inform Captain Phillips that they will be taking every single member of his crew hostage.

One of the trademarks of director Paul Greengrass is his use of shaky cam, which helps to add tension to the film and make the viewer feel like they are right alongside the action. In the film’s early scenes, the shaky cam feels forced and awkward, but once the pirates arrive the shaky cam becomes an effective tool for creating realism and suspense. Most films that use this style overdue it, moving the camera around so much that it is nauseating and difficult to see, but Greengrass shows that when used correctly, shaky cam can truly enhance the experience of the film.

It is difficult for a film to maintain this sense of tension throughout its entire runtime and, unfortunately, the second half of Captain Phillips is much less suspenseful. There is a major shift in the film’s narrative which is unable to live up to the standards set by the first half. The film is still quite riveting, but it can’t help but feel like a letdown when the first half of the film was so promising.

As the title character, Tom Hanks is given one of his best roles in years. Phillips will do whatever he needs to do in order to protect him and his crew and Hanks is able to show us this through his performance. Even when he is telling the pirates one thing, we are able to tell what his true motives are just through his facial expression and manner of speech. Also fantastic are the performance by the four Somali pirates. These are not Hollywoodized portrayals, but realistic depictions of what the Somali pirates actually looked and acted like.

Even though the second half of the film can’t quite live up to the first, this is still a gripping thriller that ranks with the year’s best. Tom Hanks delves into the fear that Captain Phillips was faced with and the courage that he exhibited. Captain Phillips tells a story that would seem unbelievable if it wasn’t undeniably true.

 

Captain Phillips receives 3.5/4

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