09/06/2013 03:00 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

'Captain Phillips' Review: Threading The Needle


There was little doubt that Tom Hanks was capable of giving a riveting performance in the lead role as Captain Richard Phillips, the man who was infamously kidnapped by the aforementioned Somali pirates in 2009 -- note: I had all memories of Larry Crowne surgically removed from my brain -- but the presentation of the pirates was more tricky; they had to walk that narrow line between terrifying and yet somehow relatabe. I'm fairly certain Greengrass pulled it off.

Captain Phillips tells the story of Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by Somali pirates in the spring of 2009. Using a lifeboat, the pirates kidnapped the ship's captain, who was later rescued by Navy SEALs. The challenge for Greengrass was to attempt to explain why these men wanted to hijack a ship full of innocent people, while not making their heinous act seem sympathetic. In other words: This couldn't be an "America: Fuck Yeah" type movie -- which was a (pretty unfair) charge levied at last year's Zero Dark Thirty (which was also produced by Sony and which also featured Navy SEALs).

We first meet the future kidnappers on the beaches of Somalia as the film jumps back and forth between them and the crew of the Maersk Alabama. By the time the attack finally happens, we know these people. We don't like what they are doing, but there's just enough familiarity with them (due, too, to the wonderful performances of Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali) that we just wish they'd stop all of this before someone gets hurt. (Unfortunately, if you know the true story, you know this is unavoidable.)

Look, Sony knows they have a good movie here. One of the few reasons I got to see it as early as I did is because I was heading out to the Toronto International Film Festival the very next morning, and would be talking about it while I waited in line for other movies. This strategy has worked because I have been talking about it: "You know what else was solid? Captain Phillips. That's just it: Captain Phillips is a solid movie that has a fairly dramatic, somber and thrilling last act. For you Oscar prognosticators, I'm not sure that it's anything more than that, but with up to 10 Best Picture nominations up for grabs, I could certainly imagine living a world in which Captain Phillips is nominated. And, yes, as I am writing this, it's one of my favorite movies of the year. (A caveat: As I write this I have seen a grand total of four movies at TIFF, so this could change.)

Regardless of that, Greengrass has made an excellent reconstruction of the events surrounding the Maersk Alabama and what happened to the real-life Captain Phillips -- an event that I suspect many people, like me, know about but don't know a lot about. Tom Hanks gives his best performance of the last 10 years (there's a money scene at the film's crescendo that I'm still thinking about). Most important, though, is that Greengrass nails the target in how to present people from one of the most impoverished and dangerous countries on the planet. Greengrass condemns their criminal acts, but he does not condemn the human beings who committed those acts -- which would have been the easy thing to do.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.