Making a movie based on recent events automatically comes with a major hurdle: Can any motion picture truly capture the initial excitement and drama of a news story?
The answer is yes, when the right people work on a project. That's the case with "Captain Phillips."
Based on actual events in 2009 off the coast of Somalia, "Captain Phillips" tells the story of a handful of pirates who take over a freighter being helmed by Capt. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) in an attempt to earn millions in ransom dollars.
The right casting starts with Tom Hanks, who adds another Oscar-caliber performance to his already stellar résumé. This is the latest performance that has Hanks playing an average man forced into extraordinary circumstances. His work is powerful, whether it's in the role of protector or helpless victim. Hanks keeps the role grounded and that's why it is so easy to relate to the performance.
The right direction comes from Paul Greengrass who displays the same skill that he brought to "United 93" for building tension despite the outcome being a matter of public record. He does this by keeping the cameras tightly focused on all of the players. The only problem with his direction is that he often keeps the cameras too tight and shows an overzealousness for hand-held shots.
In any other movie, this relentless film style would be a detriment. But, in this case, it makes the movie look less like a Hollywood production and more like what it would have been like on the ship. It isn't a documentary, but Greengrass has given the movie a look that anchors it deeply in the seas of reality.
Casting Somalis who have no acting experience to play the main characters was a real gamble. With Hanks as their sounding board, the novice actors turn in believable performances, especially the work by Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the pirates.
There's an honesty in his face, whether he's basking in the potential of living the American Dream or trying to hold his group together when the odds begin to shift.
Screenwriter Billy Ray manages to transform this story of the taking of U.S.-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years, into a story that has both human and political elements. He doesn't fall into the trap of making the pirates a group of ruthless thugs and shows that even though their efforts are ill-fated, their actions are motivated by familiar factors: family, work and money.
Greengrass makes the pirates sympathetic, but he never does it to the point of justifying their actions. That makes "Captain Phillips" a taut tale — one that will make you feel like you booked passage on the ship. And the man who gives the experience the most power is the ever-dependable Hanks.
"Captain Phillips," rated PG-13 for violence. Stars Tom Hanks. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Running time: 135 minutes. Grade: B+
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.