British director Paul Greengrass having become the "poster boy" for smart, aware modern action cinema is no bad thing in itself. The more like him we have, the better off we'll all be - even though it is kind of disappointing that, in anointing him, people tend to minimize the exploits of Kathryn Bigelow, who works pretty much in the same territory, as Captain Phillips, a film that is also well up her usual thematic alley, amply proves. Scripted by another thoughtful director - Billy Ray, of Shattered Glass and Breach - Captain Phillips is a retelling of the 2009 real-life hijacking by Somali prates of the Maersk Alabama container ship, adapted from the memoir by the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, played here by Tom Hanks.

     It's the kind of fact-based thriller that Mr. Greengrass - who started out in British news television, became known with the equally fact-based Bloody Sunday and whose finest American film remains the harrowing United 93 - has form in: the kinetic, immersive take on the events, exemplified by the use of handheld camera (here manned by the great British cinematographer Barry Ackroyd) and by the urgent pace of the editing (stand up Christopher Rouse), always work alongside the issues the director wants to highlight, rather than undermining them. Captain Phillips pits, in fact, two crews against each other: that of the container ship, blue-collar professionals one and all, and the Somali pirates led by the apparently fearless Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who have nothing to lose anymore and are, in a way, doing as much their jobs and whatever it takes to put food on their table.

     For all its steadily mounting pace and outward trappings of action thriller, the key to the film lies in the face-offs between Phillips and Muse once he is taken hostage; the audience may be predisposed to be on the side of the American, as Mr. Hanks is adept at playing these kinds of non-descript American everymen caught in events beyond their control, but both he and Mr. Greengrass smartly allow Mr. Abdi to shine and more than hold his own as the film slowly makes its wider thoughts visible. Even though the outcome may be pre-ordained by the growing involvement of the American military, the director is not interested in making the audience simply see this as an action movie or a prestige true-story film, and knowing of his past, a manicheistic "us-vs.-them" card was always out of the question. Instead, Captain Phillips is laid out as a tale of the dire consequences of a world economy gone haywire, where people do what they have to do to put food on the table while trying not to be swallowed by a ruthless, relentless system.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenwriter: Billy Ray, from the book by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd (colour, widescreen)
Music: Henry Jackman
Designer: Paul Kirby
Costumes: Mark Bridges
Editor: Christopher Rouse
Producers: Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael de Luca (Columbia Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Michael de Luca Productions and Trigger Street Productions)
USA, 2013, 134 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, Lisbon, October 11th 2013

Nominated for six 2013 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor - Barkhad Abdi; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing)


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