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Captain Phillips

It's not surprising that Paul Greengrass, who directed such suspenseful films as The Bourne Supremacyand United 93, could enthrall audiences with Captain Phillips (***½ out of four), his harrowing account of the 2009 hijacking of the American freighter Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates.

While told from the perspective of the ship's captain, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), it does not ignore the desperate situation that drove four Somali men to climb aboard the ship and demand great quantities of cash.

Hanks deftly captures Phillips' blend of bravery, heroism and abject terror in a wonderfully minimalist performance, one of his best.

Greengrass is a masterful action director, adept at keeping audiences off balance and on edge with his rapid hand-held camera moves, brisk pacing and quick edits. He also knows how to take ripped-from-the-headlines incidents and re-create them with striking verisimilitude. Audiences feel thrust into the heart of the action.

By focusing on the edgy relationship between Phillips and Somali pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Greengrass personalizes a terrifying experience. No simple bandit, Muse may be a reluctant villain at the mercy of a vicious warlord, but his despair makes him all the more ruthless. Muse and Phillips are pawns of a sort, victims of global economic forces beyond their control.

Crew members are almost sitting ducks, hampered by being aboard an enormous, un-armed commercial vessel. Though only four in number, the pirates have a lethal advantage: automatic weapons. The ship's crew can only feebly fend off the marauders by spraying water hoses.

Piloting a cargo ship from Oman to Kenya, Phillips is a veteran sailor and no-nonsense Vermonter, big on following established procedures. When the pirates make their way onto his ship, he is decisive and quick-thinking.

Somali-born Abdi's portrayal of Muse is terrific, but the film belongs to Hanks. So much hinges on his earnest performance. Hanks, the ideal on-screen Everyman, intensifies the sense of authenticity in this taut, relentless and riveting story of survival against terrible odds.

When an American military aircraft carrier arrives, the pirates grow increasingly frantic. As they bicker among themselves they become all the more fearsome and unpredictable. - Claudia Puig, USA Today

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