Heart-stopper puts Hanks in the frame for an Oscar

Tom Hanks is Captain Phillips
Tom Hanks is Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks charts a steady course towards a deserved sixth Oscar nomination for his tour-de-force portrayal of an unlikely hero in Paul Greengrass’s nerve-racking thriller.

Based on the book A Captain’s Duty by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, this expertly crafted picture dramatises the true story of an American seaman, whose cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.

Working from a lean script by Billy Ray, Greengrass demonstrates once again why he is one of the finest directors of nail-biting action. From the moment the Somali pirates first appear on the radar, Captain Phillips leaves us feeling seasick with tension until the extraordinary final scene that releases all of that pent-up emotion in a torrent of tears.

Our tears.

Captain Phillips (Hanks) kisses his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) goodbye and takes charge of his cargo vessel, the Maersk Alabama, bound for Mombasa, Kenya. He is aided by an international crew including Chief Mate Shane Murphy (Michael Chernus) and Chief Engineer Mike Perry (David Warshofsky). When pirates are spotted off the stern, Phillips telephones the authorities.

“Chances are they’re just fisherman,” says an operator.

“They’re not here to fish,” retorts the captain with mounting concern.

A tense game of cat and mouse culminates in the pirates boarding the vessel.

Phillips conceals the crew below deck in the engine room while he takes charge of the situation.

“Nobody get hurt, No al-Qaeda here,” promises chief hijacker Muse (Barkhad Abdi) with a sickening smile.

Faced with threats from Muse and his hot-headed compatriot Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Phillips puts himself in harm’s way to ensure the safety of all on board. When the stand-off spirals out of control, the destroyer USS Bainbridge, captained by Frank Castellano (Yul Vazquez), races to the scene.

Phillips realises the gravity of his predicament and the potentially tragic outcome, telling his captors, “They would rather sink this boat than let you get me back to Somalia.”

Captain Phillips is one of the year’s best films. Hanks is flawless - we can see his mind whirring as he engineers distractions to keep the crew safe - and final gut-wrenching scenes wring him, and us, emotionally dry.

Abdi delivers a striking supporting performance, adding complexity to a role that could have easily been a caricature.

Greengrass’s propulsive direction, coupled with Christopher Rouse’s hyperkinetic editing and Henry Jackman’s heart-pounding orchestral score, leave us scant time to gasp for breath.