In April of 2009, the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates. After realizing they could not keep control of the ship, the pirates escaped aboard one of the Alabama's lifeboats, taking Richard Phillips, the ship's captain, as hostage. After days trapped in the lifeboat with the pirates, Phillips was rescued by Navy SEALs.
In Captain Phillips, his story gets a cinematic treatment--but it's far from the rah rah action/adventure story it could have been. Under the direction of Paul Greengrass, the film begins by contrasting two captains getting ready for their time at sea: the titular Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), worrying over the safety mechanisms and keeping strict with is crew, and Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi) selecting the men for his pirating mission. These scenes are later echoed when we see the U.S. Navy SEALs at work.
The comparisons are no accident. Greengrass strikes an excellent balance. The pirates, though the villains of Phillips's story, are not inhuman or broadly drawn. As everything spins out of Muse's control (leading to even more dangerous situations for Phillips), you can feel for his plight while still knowing that if you was in Phillips's position, you would absolutely want the SEAL cavalry doing everything in their power to rescue you.
And what a harrowing rescue it is. The movie is based on a true story which the audience is likely to know, at least broadly. Nonetheless, Greengrass's ability to build tension is frankly, fantastic. His signature handheld (or shaky cam) approach may be off putting to some viewers, but he has found a way to use it not only to express the "right there in the action" feeling, but to make every incident--as well as the geography of both ships--clear. The latter sometimes gets missed with this style of filming, but Greengrass uses proximity and close quarters quite well.
Tom Hanks has always been a reliable, likable performer, but it's possible that the last five minutes of Captain Phillips displays the best performance of his career. Abdi gives a similarly strong performance; the casting directors did well to pull him from obscurity as a Minneapolis chauffeur. What could have been a forgettable action story is instead a gripping tale of survival in Captain Phillips.