There’s a moment about a half-hour into Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass’ nerve-wracking account of the 2009 cargo ship takeover at the hands of Somali pirates, when your heart drops out of your chest. After one failed attempt to catch the ship, the pirates finally pull up alongside and hook a ladder over the railing. It’s a simple moment– no music and no real sound, but in that second you know it’s all over, and that the nightmare is just beginning.

What follows over the course of the next 90 minutes is a white-knuckle thrill ride of the highest order– a brilliantly orchestrated film that ramps up the tension at every turn. Even more than that, it’s also a definitive reminder that Tom Hanks is still among the best in the business, and that Greengrass is right there with him.

We know the basics of the story– Captain Richard Phillips was piloting a gargantuan cargo ship off the coast of Somalia when pirates hijacked it and took him hostage in a lifeboat, before Navy SEALs swoop in. But the fact that we know the punchline doesn’t do anything to steal the film’s thunder. And as we’ve learned from Greengrass’ previous outings, like United 93 and the second and third Bourne movies, there’s no one better than he is at ratcheting up the anxiety.

Captain Phillips starts innocently enough, with Phillips (Hanks) calmly leaving his Vermont home to catch a plane for his next charge, piloting a boat from Oman to Kenya. He knows the risks and is even in the process of running a few rudimentary on-board drills when the real pirates arrive. Within moments that innocence is lost, and the mayhem explodes.

Credit screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) for putting together such an intelligent and well-rounded script. Not only do we get a strong sense of Phillips as a person, we also come to see the pirates as humans and not just cardboard baddies. They have motivations and fears and, to an extent, even some compassion. (Keep in mind that none of the ship’s crew was killed in what was literally a hair-trigger situation lasting four days.)

The last half of the film, when Phillips and the pirates are confined to the tiny lifeboat, gets even more harrowing as Greengrass gives the audience a haunting sense of claustrophobia. Using his trademark shaky-cam (though not nearly as egregiously as he has in the past), he puts us right in the middle of the action. It’s not so much documentary-style as it is you’re-sitting-right-there-next-to-them style.

And lest we forget this is the same Tom Hanks who once won back-to-back Oscars (but has lately been seen only in bloated, ham-fisted dreck like Cloud Atlas, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Larry Crowne) the final scene will remind you; this man has talent that few people in Hollywood can even approach. The pirates turn in remarkably riveting performances, too, particularly Barkhad Abdi as the ringleader Muse.

Captain Phillips is a testament (along with Prisoners, Rush, and Gravity over the past consecutive weekends) that movies can entertain, astound, and leave you breathless… and be intelligent while doing it.

5/5 stars