There's a reason Tom Hanks' name runs above the title in ads for "Captain Phillips":
The man is awesome.
Just when you thought his career was winding down, he reinvents himself - first with a recent hit turn on Broadway ("Lucky Guy"), and now with a gripping performance as Capt. Richard Phillips, the real-life seaman whose cargo ship was taken by Somali pirates in 2009.
This photo from “Captain Phillips”?shows Tom Hanks (left) and Barkhad Abdi, starring as a cargo ship captain and the leader of a band of Somali pirates, respectively.
Indeed, despite modern filmdom's technical proficiency, it's still the actors who make you cry; everyone in my small party was doing so by the time the credits rolled - and it was all Hanks' fault! His work in the closing scenes is magnificent.
Earlier, his fear guides ours as the pirates approach; his familiarity and gravitas hold down the terror as they board and he sends his men below, leaving a skeleton crew to face the attack.
Later, the situation deteriorates and Phillips winds up alone on a lifeboat with all four pirates; through a long, tense and ugly standoff with the Navy, Hanks exudes a heady mix of dread, compassion, level-headed scheming and - ultimately - tear-inducing meltdown.
Credit also goes to those playing the pirates - all four hired during a casting call in a Somali community near Minneapolis. Barkhad Abdi is particularly convincing as the leader, enlisting just enough sympathy to keep his men from becoming monsters.
Indeed, director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray ("Hunger Games") are at pains to establish parallels between the pirates and the shipping crew. Yet the few similarities only serve to highlight the differences - namely the poverty and desperation of the African men, which also emerges as Phillips talks with them in the lifeboat.
Greengrass has carved out a reputation for gritty, proficient and realistic thrillers such as the second and third Bourne films and "United 93" - a shattering drama about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
His direction here is first-rate, bringing clarity and escalating tension to a complex situation in an unfamiliar setting - even nighttime scenes amid surging waves, with Seal sharpshooters wrestling for a long-distance shot at the pirates without harming Phillips.
The film's only flaw is that it feels too long. I'm sure that sounds heartless - as I'm sure every minute of the actual ordeal felt longer than this movie; but for me, the arc of the storyline suggests that the lifeboat sequence should be a "final act," when in fact it's nearly half the film.
I might also point out that several real-life crew members have objected to the movie's depiction of Phillips; even before the film, they'd launched a lawsuit claiming he set his course too close to the coast at a time when piracy was rampant.
Of course I can't sort out the truth of this matter; but I can tell you that "Captain Phillips" is a bracing portrait of terror and heroism - and another Oscar-bait performance from one of our finest working actors.