1. As a Thriller
Based on a 2009 news story about Somali pirates hijacking a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, Paul Greengrass's movie begins at a slow, slightly dull procedural trot. Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) says goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener), takes command of the MV Maersk Alabama, and sets sails for Mombasa. But Greengrass is a brilliantly hyperkinetic, almost Cubist stylist-imagine Michael Bay with filmmaking talent-who turns everything into a thriller, whether he's directing a Bourne picture (he did the best two) or a docudrama about United Flight 93 on 9/11. After coolly and lucidly laying out how Phillips gets kidnapped, Greengrass starts ratcheting up the suspense-the final scenes are almost unbearably gripping.
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2. As an Oscar Movie
To have a shot at Best Picture, a film needs to be something that industry voters think weighty.Captain Phillips fits the bill perfectly. Not only does it tell a timely story about endangered Americans (much like Argo) and the situation in Somalia, it does so with the liberal sensibility congenial to Hollywood. Rather than portray the pirates as bogeymen, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (rightly) emphasize that they are also victims, tyrannized by poverty and warlords. If these desperate young men don't hijack ships, they're doomed. And if they do-they're doomed. Like Phillips himself, we come to feel sympathy for them, especially their skin-and-bones leader, Musé. He's movingly played by Barkhad Abdi, a Somali former-refugee from Minneapolis who's so great he'll be in a tux next to Hanks (see below) on Oscar night.
3. As a Study in Scale
Captain Phillips is built around two masterfully staged scenes that turn on the visual contrast between the big and the small. In the first, we watch a handful of pirates on a small boat take over a cargo ship 20 times its size-David conquering Goliath. But at the end, the empire strikes back. Sitting in a tiny covered lifeboat, Phillips and his four captors are overshadowed by the looming might of the United States-a gigantic naval destroyer armed for Armageddon. In the real world of politics and power, you see, Goliath tends to win.
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4. As a Tom Hanks Movie
From A League of Their Own in 1992 through Catch Me If You Can a decade later, Hanks has enjoyed one of the greatest runs in Hollywood history. He won two Oscars (for Philadelphiaand Forrest Gump), was even better in Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away, and had comedy smashes like Sleepless in Seattle-not to mention voicing Woody in Toy Story. Then something happened. Maybe he got bored being the new Jimmy Stewart. Anyway, his performances began swinging between the dull (The Da Vinci Code) and the hammy (The Ladykillers), and by the time he made the egregious Larry Crowne, he'd seemingly lost all connection to ordinary people. He regains it here. His canny, watchful performance traces Phillips's transformation from a competently brusque officer who likes things shipshape to one who's discovered new levels of cleverness, compassion, and terror-Hanks's meltdown during the post-rescue medical exam punches his ticket to the Oscars. Welcome back, Tom. We missed you.
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