I don't remember the last time that I was so tense as I was during Captain Phillips. And that is saying something when you consider that I already knew enough about the story to know how it was going to end.
So what could make a popularized and well-known story so perfectly engaging?
Two words: Tom Hanks.
Yet it would be unjust not to give credit to the absolutely excellent work of the actors portraying the Somali pirates, especially Barkhad Abdi. Their erratic, frightening behavior is so realistic that it's chilling. They have no thought of right or wrong, no sense of reason, no qualms about killing a man on the spot. Watching the three main Somali pirates had a maddeningly tense quality to it--the entire movie you just wait for them to completely snap and rip Captain Phillips to pieces. They walk the line and unpredictably leap from one side of sanity to the other, and at no moment are you ever finding yourself breathing easily. This tension, uncertainty, and anxiety fuels the pace of the movie more than any of the action does. The pirates are so realistic and believable, that even as the audience, I felt unsafe.
Admirably, Phillips keeps his cool despite the crazed looks in the eyes of the pirates, but when the man gets desperate, you get desperate watching. When he starts to sweat, so do you. When he panics, you REALLY do. And when he starts screaming for help as he's about to be executed point-blank, you hold your breath.
Such is the mastery of the directing and acting of Captain Phillips, that even when I knew what would ultimately happen, I could. Not. Relax. It would have felt irresponsible. The last half of the movie or so takes place on an escape pod, therefore the visuals are extremely limited and confined. Most of what is seen for that segment is the inside of the pod, where Phillips and the pirates bake, and they all become increasingly more desperate and overwhelmed by heat exhaustion and panic. With these limited camera shots, the claustrophobic feeling was very real, even in an air-conditioned theater. However, even prior to the extended sequence aboard the closed escape pod, the camera angles remained tight and close wherever possible, keeping the focus on the sparks of madness in the eyes of the pirates, or the beads of sweat on the forehead of Phillips. The cinematography was hugely successful in keeping me feeling trapped in the story, to the point that when the movie ended, I felt dreadfully thirsty from having been aboard the escape pod for so long in such high heat.
In my personal opinion, there is simply nothing that Tom Hanks can't do. His resume might have bad movies somewhere on it, but I can't recall a single time that even one of his lesser movies involved bad acting. Captain Phillips is no exception to this, and may in fact be one of Hank's finer performances in recent years. Although his performance is sterling throughout the movie, the true standout moment is when, finally rescued and aboard a safe vessel, Phillips starts going into shock. His trembling, stuttering, sudden emotional collapse is absolutely masterful.
While I'm not sure that I would see Captain Phillips again, it was certainly an excellent movie choice for an evening, and I've recommended it several times. Every award that Captain Phillips was nominated for, whether at the Golden Globes or the Oscars, was well-deserved.