“Captain Phillips” Is an Exciting True Thriller

There’s something romantic about the pirates of yesteryear. They used to be cool. Even had a Golden Age. Learning about Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, Captain Kidd and the like was fun. Even the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” was enjoyable enough. But pirates nowadays are scary. Mean. Living on the ragged edge. Back in their day, those pirates were also probably terrifying, but time has added a sort of mysticism to them. To be an old school pirate is fun. To be a present day pirate? Not so much. Just ask Captain Richard Phillips.

Based on the true story of the Maersk Alabama in 2009, the film finds Phillips and his crew up against four armed Somali pirates bent on ransoming them off for millions. Things take a turn for the worse once the pirates leave the ship in the lifeboat with Phillips as their lone hostage, getting the United States Navy involved.

Greengrass, who gained notoriety with his politically charged (that’s putting it mildly) “Bloody Sunday,” has struggled to find solid ground since directing the two “Bourne” sequels. Torn between making a political statement and a commercial thriller, his Matt Damon starrer “Green Zone” didn’t quite hit the mark, but with “Phillips” he keeps the message in the background, instead examining the relationship between hostage and hostage taker, and what could drive someone to choose that as a lifestyle. Few directors out there can humanize villains like Greengrass; look no further than his harrowing 9/11 film “United 93” for proof, where he actually makes 9/11 hijackers seem like ordinary, frightened people.

Hanks, as Phillips, turns in on his best performances in years. After last year’s “Cloud Atlas,” the actor seems to have finally tired of making romantic comedies and ho-hum blockbusters like “The Da Vinci Code” and decided to stretch his acting legs a bit. He’s never played a role like Phillips before, and seeing someone as likable as Hanks under such duress is amazing. With the way Greengrass utilizes hand-held cinematography, actors tend to get lost in the mix between that and his hyper-editing. Its not easy delivering a standout performance in that environment, but Hanks does.

Focusing on the human aspect of the situation takes away from some of the tension throughout, but makes “Captain Phillips” a more compelling film. Greengrass and company could easily have made the pirates one-dimensional and crafted a white-knuckle roller coaster, but instead they chose to humanize the pirates, even delving into why they chose this line of work. While it doesn’t reach the heights of some of Greengrass’ other films, “Captain Phillips” is a very solid thriller that has an amazing — and true — finale.