Staying with its time-tested strategy of releases, Hollywood is now flooding theaters with some of the year’s best films – and this almost unbearably intense depiction of an incident in the Indian Ocean 4 years ago certainly fits that bill. British director Paul Greengrass, director of two of the Bourne trilogy (as well as the superb but underrated Bloody Sunday) briskly sets the scene of the only American vessel to be hijacked by pirates in international waters since the early 19th century. Tom Hanks turns in his best performance in over 2 decades as Richard Phillips, captain of MV Maersk Alabama, a container ship carrying food supplies to Africa.
On April 8, 2009, the MV Maersk Alabama was boarded by 4 young Somali pirates, despite Phillip’s use of various evasive and defensive tactics that he’d had the crew practice the day before. The chief engineer hid most of the crew, disabled the engines and even managed to capture one of the pirates which led to an aborted exchange effort and the beginning of an unbelievable tale of personal fortitude played out against the backdrop of a dazzling display of U.S. Navy’s rescue capabilities.
As he demonstrated so brilliantly in his film about the passengers aboard United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, Greengrass excels in visually establishing the settings of his films. The opening sequences of United 93 brought Boston’s air traffic control room to vivid life and he repeats that process here, showing audiences what life on board a gigantic cargo ship looks and feels like and allowing them to see for themselves the strengths and weaknesses Maersk Alabama faced as it fought off its invaders.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) captures the canvas Greengrass paints on; endless ocean, the byzantine inner-workings of modern ocean-going vessels - - and the claustrophobic confines of its lifeboat…</p>
Hanks’ career in Hollywood has been so commercially successful that it’s something of a jolt to realize that nearly 20 years have elapsed since he won his first Oscar (Big) and over a dozen since he was last nominated (Saving Private Ryan). At 57, he’s at the upper age limit for leading men, but this part suits him perfectly, offering this widely admired star an opportunity to blend command presence with startling vulnerability in a role which may well be one of the finest in his long career. The movie’s his and he makes the best of it.
The director ratchets up the tension admirably throughout Phillips’</i> 2 and ¼ hour length, but he takes more time than necessary to complete its thrilling conclusion. That shortcoming, coupled with a tendency to display the hijackers uniformly as half-crazed druggies, takes a bit of luster away from this movie-but those are small, carping observations when set against what the director, his star and all those involved in its production have achieved.
The Verdict? A gripping thriller dominated by Hanks' performance.
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