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Tom Hanks leads a convincing charge for his third Best Actor Oscar as real-life merchant seaman Capt. Richard Phillips, whose container ship is overpowered by Somali pirates in Paul Greengrass’ breathless and exhilarating thriller.

While Hollywood spent much of the last decade obsessing over the rum-swigging dandy pirates personified by a swaggering Johnny Depp, the rest of the world looked on in fear and disbelief as the East Coast of Africa became rampant with tales of a far less romanticised breed of gun-toting mercenary laying siege to merchant vessels on the high seas. Somalia was thrust into the public spotlight as previously insignificant crimelords seized the opportunity to stake their claim on the global marketplace.

Paul Greengrass, the British documentarian-turned-action auteur responsible for such vital thrillers of recent years as United 93 and the two best Bourne sequels, takes the helm here to recreate the true story of the first such American container ship to be attacked. In 2009, the Maersk Alabama was boarded by four armed men and forced to re-route towards the Somali coast. While most of the crew barricaded themselves in the engine room and did their best to stop the ship from reaching its new destination, their experienced Captain, here portrayed brilliantly by Tom Hanks, was held at gunpoint for days as international naval forces rallied to their rescue.

Shot largely on location aboard a real merchant vessel, Greengrass ensures that the ordeal always feels genuine, the safety of his protagonists is always at stake and that the outcome of this nail-biting scenario is never a foregone conclusion, even for those in the audience who may be familiar with the actual events. Often criticised for his championing of “shaky-cam” handheld photography, Greengrass (together with DP Barry Ackroyd and editor Christopher Rouse) employs a deft regard for framing and editing that retains the urgency and realism of this particular aesthetic without disorienting the viewer.

With this kind of high-energy situation, so much of the tension and drama lives or dies with the film’s performances, and Greengrass has cast some fantastic non-professional actors in the roles of the pirates. He takes the time to develop both groups of characters, contrasting the trivial gripes of a unionised crew with the more immediate, hand-to-mouth motivations of the impoverished fishermen-turned-hijackers. Special mention must be given to Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the group, who brilliantly conveys both a merciless conviction for his mission, but also a humanity and resignation about where his station in life has taken him. Abdi proves more than capable of standing toe to toe with Hanks, forcing the perennial A-lister to raise his own game in the process.

While considered one of the most reliable leading men in Hollywood, it has been a number of years since Tom Hanks was pushed out of his comfort zone and challenged with actually acting rather than simply exuding screen presence. The last decade has seen the actor, now 57, rest on his laurels somewhat with films including Larry Crowne, Angels & Demons and of course his Pixar voice work. Hanks is held largely responsible for last year’s Cloud Atlas ever happening at all, and perhaps it was the myriad new challenges in that film that reinvigorated the hunger inside him, because frankly speaking, his work in Captain Phillips is astounding.

Over the course of the film, Phillips runs the gamut of emotions and personas, exhibiting everything from world-weary boss, to crisis situation leader, right through to base, primal survival instincts and total physical exhaustion. Hanks draws from a lifetime of acting experience to fully realise Phillips as more than a man of action, or innocent victim, but also a family man, a vigilant captain, a concerned citizen and ultimately a frightened yet determined human being. While Hanks will be facing stiff competition in the awards race this season, most notably from Robert Redford (All is Lost) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), the smart money will be on him securing his Oscar hat-trick come February.

Earlier this year I caught the Danish thriller A Hijacking, which also dramatises a true story of piracy off the Somali coast, and at first I was wary that Captain Phillips would be simply a retooling of similar material for a Western audience. The good news is that the two films approach comparable stories from wildly different directions, and ultimately serve to complement each other, rather than eradicate the other’s raison d’etre. With Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass manages to make his film feel relevant, prescient and fully aware of both sides of the larger story that expands well beyond the characters onscreen jostling for control of a single ship. However, he never forgets that this is also a high stakes, pulse-pounding action thriller, and Captain Phillips delivers a nerve shredding experience for the viewer that refuses to let up until its final seconds.

Coming hot on the heels of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, another high-energy survival story that delivers both cinematic bombast and praiseworthy performances, audiences are set to be put through the wringer once again, but it’s an ordeal well worth experiencing. Captain Phillips proves that exhilarating cinematic entertainment doesn’t need to be dumbed down in order to be successful, while simultaneously proving that intelligent filmmaking and socially-aware storytelling can also be incredibly entertaining.

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