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Movie review: 'Captain Phillips' well worth the price of admission

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(8 of 10 stars)

(134 minutes; Rated PG-13 for language, violence, drug use, and adult situations)

If you are looking for a well done action/thriller movie with authentic, fresh writing and some top-notch acting, then seek out Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips."

Hanks does not get in front of the camera as much as he once did and if you look at his resumé you will see he produces more often these days than he acts. That is a shame in some ways because, like most movie fans, when I see a preview starring Hanks my ears perk up because his movies (aside from a couple recent flops) are usually pretty damn good.

And this film does not disappoint — at all.

"Captain Phillips" tells the story of Richard Phillips, captain of the Maesk Alabama, a container cargo ship that in 2009 was hijacked by Somali pirates, and who was taken hostage and rescued five days later (this is not a spoiler; the story was covered extensively by the national media at that time).

Director Paul Greengrass, who is responsible for the best 9/11 movie ever, "United 93," takes the same docudrama, no-nonsense look at these events. With a well-written screenplay from Billy Ray ("Hunger Games" and "Flightplan") that was adapted from the book written by Phillips chronicling the events, the film moves in a direct and succinct manner throughout its 134 minutes. Greengrass is a master of tension and uses any and all means to get what he wants from his actors. A classic example is that Greengrass did not allow Hanks and the actors playing the pirates to meet until the cameras were rolling as they stormed the ship's bridge.

The film had a multitude of opportunities to get muddled in sentimentality and the neurotic angst that we invariably see in similar, yet lesser films, and I must commend the filmmakers for choosing to stay focused on the facts and the natural drama that occurred in this situation. There were plenty of plot twists that we did not have to plod through the seemingly requisite, maudlin I-love-my-family-I-hope-I-get-to-see-them-again or Stockholm syndrome scenes.

Even more praiseworthy is that these filmmakers, with a little research, did not embellish the facts too greatly. There are real-life disagreements from those who were there as to how well prepared Phillips was to prevent a pirate attack, but that seems incidental given the overall scope of the movie. This movie could have easily slipped into a political statement in any number of ways and to its credit, directly avoided doing so. Greengrass allows the audience to view and observe and come to its own conclusions. That alone, in Hollywood, is completely refreshing.

Hanks, of course, was his typical brilliant self and surely has earned another Oscar nomination for this film. He more than merited it on his post-traumatic scene that was stunningly breath-taking (and all the more remarkable was that the scene was entirely improvised). As always, Hanks was understated and expressive as any actor working. He inherently understands emotion and how to powerfully release it at just the right time.

My only issue with his performance was that his New England accent that was so pronounced in the opening scenes quite disappeared by the end of the movie. In Hank's defense, this idiosyncrasy has become widely pervasive in recent American cinema.

Also notable is Barkhad Abdi, who played the lead Somali pirate, Muse. Abdi is an actual transplanted Somali national who was plucked from his new home in Minneapolis (I'm not making this up) and cast as the antagonist. He more than held his own in his scenes with Hanks (no small feat) and looked so authentically like a pirate that you wonder if anyone has fed the poor guy since he got to the U.S. He was so skinny that I kept wanting someone to hand him a Twinkie during this film.

The other actors, ranging from the three other pirates to the Navy SEALS who ended this event in Phillips' favor were plot devices and not significant enough to create any kind of character worthy of mention. There is an argument there regarding the brilliance of the writing.

What else was exceptionally noteworthy and gave great significance to the film was the cinematography by Barry Ackroyd. His ability to capture background, evident in his work with "The Hurt Locker" and "United 93," gives us another layer to the story. While one can never feel empathy for pirates who kill, torture, and kidnap innocent people, the scenes in Somalia give the audience empathy to their desperate place in life. His shots of the U.S. Navy and the SEAL team relay their massive power. It was simply a remarkably well-shot movie.

Movies like "Captain Phillips" do not come around that often, and any chance to watch an Oscar-worthy performance by Tom Hanks is well worth the price of admission. This is two well-spent hours.

I give this movie 8 out of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!