Based on the real events surrounding the seizing of an American merchant tanker by Somalian pirates off the coast of Africa in 2009. Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, the captain of the vessel who does everything in his power to keep his crew safe. It is a fascinating character study for Hanks. On the surface the captain is an average Joe, yet his almost superhuman ingenuity allows him to remain one step ahead of his captors. His performance is filled with contradictions: understated yet confident, vulnerable but never out of his depth. It is impossible to look away.
Equally impressive are the men imprisoning him. Greengrass showed his astuteness in casting unknown performers in United 93, a trick he has repeated in his choice for the pirates. A quartet of first time actors who manage to hold their own with one of the most celebrated actors in Hollywood. The tension hinges on their ability to provide a believable performance, a task they are more than equal to; their brutal bullying provides the perfect foil for the resourceful Phillips.
It is an unbearably tense experience, with an impending sense of doom established early on. From the moment the pirates appear as a blip on the radar the suspense is taken to a fingernail chewing level. It does not relent. Greengrass is a director that understands emotional investment is vital in a thriller. It is simple enough to draw sympathy for the reluctant hero Phillips, it is quite another task to make the audience care for the kidnappers. He achieves it however through examining the political turmoil in Somalia that forces simple fishermen into a life of piracy by a tyrannical warlord.
It is a bold decision to elicit sympathy for these men, yet the story of chief kidnapper Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is as heartbreaking as the main protagonist, a man who is left with no other option. Greengrass sees both sides of the story, much to our benefit. It is an attention to detail that has made him a standout in his profession, and makes Captain Phillips an unmissable experience.