The Reel: Hanks thrills with intense ‘Captain Phillips’

Ben Conniff

This past summer, it felt as if we were getting another new blockbuster about an impending apocalypse every single week.

Now that the fall awards season is underway, the theme seems to have turned to individual survival.

Last week featured Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuarón’s breathtaking “Gravity,” a film about a stranded astronaut.

This week, it’s Tom Hanks as a hostage in “Captain Phillips.”

In the spring of 2009, Captain Richard Phillips set out with a 20-man crew on the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship carrying food and supplies to impoverished countries in Africa.

When the minor threat of a pirate attack in their waters becomes an impending reality, there’s little Phillips or his crew can do, their only weapons being high-powered water hoses and one flare gun.

From there, Phillips is forced to fight for his life when the pirates spirit him onto a lifeboat.

As director, Paul Greengrass brings the intense, kinetic style of filmmaking that made his two “Bourne” films so exciting.

The deft camerawork of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd create a sense of urgency that’s grounded in stark realism.

Save for a gorgeous opening shot of Phillips’ northeastern home, the camera is always moving.

That means most of the action is filmed “shaky-cam” style, which contributes to a feeling of seasickness, in this case.

Though I never felt the effects myself, “Captain Phillips” would be hard to recommend to anyone who typically suffers from motion or seasickness.

As for the performances, it’s impossible to picture Tom Hanks not getting a Best Actor nod for his work as the titular character.

Every phrase he utters and every change of the look in Hanks’ eyes allows the audience to know precisely what Phillips is thinking.

The ending alone features some of the most amazing work I’ve ever seen from the actor and is certainly the highlight of his performance here.

As the leader of the pirate hijackers, Barkhad Abdi proves perfectly menacing in his first acting role.

Watching this newcomer spar with the likes of Hanks is simply incredible.

We’re not supposed to sympathize with the pirates, despite our understanding of their plight and motivations.

This works because Abdi’s anonymity is consistent with the sense of hyper-realism that the movie portrays.

A name actor in that part would have diminished the film’s impact.

While it doesn’t quite reach the visual or poetic aspirations of “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” is fall’s next great thrill ride, featuring Tom Hanks’ best performance in years.