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Movie Review — ‘Captain Phillips’

Billy Crystal must have emerged from his hole and seen his shadow earlier this year, because it sure seems like we’re getting six more weeks of Oscar season.

The traditional rollout of prestige pics is still more than a month away, yet successive weeks already have brought “Prisoners,” “Rush” and “Gravity,” at least the last of which is firmly in the Best-Picture mix.

Now, so is “Captain Phillips.”

The gripping real-life drama is the story of two captains: Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), who’s in charge of the sprawling, 500-foot container ship Maersk Alabama and its 20-member crew, and the single-named Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who’s in charge of a tiny fishing skiff and its crew of three skinny Somali pirates.

One of the best choices made by screenwriter Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”) and director Paul Greengrass (the two middle “Bourne” movies) was giving Muse depth and dimensions. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but Muse isn’t evil. He’s just trying to eke out a living in a land of few legitimate opportunities.

While Phillips goes to work — fretting to his wife (Catherine Keener) about the changing world and whether their son will have the same opportunities he did — Muse does likewise, rousted from sleep by news that the local warlord is demanding the capture of a boat that will bring a large ransom.

As Muse tells Phillips when they finally meet onboard the Alabama, “Just business.” Everybody, Muse says, has a boss.

Before that, though, they go through a game of cat-and-mouse, staring at each other through binoculars, as the Alabama — big, lumbering and unarmed except for fire hoses and a couple of flares — tries to elude the smaller, agile fishing boat and the automatic weapons onboard. To further mangle an animal metaphor, the pirates ultimately end up like the dog who chases a car but has no idea what to do with it when he catches it.

The Alabama’s crew shuts down the ship’s power before fighting back against their attackers. Phillips convinces Muse that the boat is useless and that his best hope is to take the money in the ship’s safe and escape in the covered lifeboat. Before they go, though, as anyone who has seen the trailers or was paying attention during the 2009 incident knows, they take Phillips with them.

This is where “Captain Phillips” goes from good to great.

Trapped in the claustrophobic escape pod, Phillips’ situation quickly deteriorates from bad to worse. Two of the four pirates are badly wounded, some are high on khat, and despite Muse’s repeated assurances that “Evryting gon be OK,” the kidnappers grow nearly as frightened as Phillips.

Abdi makes his acting debut as Muse, and he’s terrific. Nearly skeletal and haunted looking, he captures both the necessary confidence and the naivete.

When the Navy arrives in the form of a SEAL team, the USS Bainbridge and other vessels, Muse is convinced they’re there to escort everyone safely back to Somalia.

Phillips, though, is savvy enough to know that if the SEALs can’t save him, the Navy will blow the boat out of the water. One way or the other, there’s no way he’s setting foot in Somalia.

Hanks gives a mostly restrained performance throughout. After all, Phillips is a man who knows what he’s doing. But the longer he’s set adrift in an increasingly harrowing situation, the cracks begin to show. When he finally lets go of all his emotions, it’s like a sucker punch to your heart.

“Captain Phillips” works as well as it does because of Hanks. When things go south for Hollywood’s favorite Everyman, they hit home even harder than they should. It’s an ideal casting choice because, while Phillips knows his way around a ship, you wouldn’t rely on him to, say, fight his way out of a cramped vessel against four heavily armed attackers.

Hanks, though, looks like a good bet to fight his way into what’s sure to be a crowded Best-Actor field.

Having been filmed on the open water on a working ship identical to the Alabama lends the suspenseful “Captain Phillips” a degree of authenticity you rarely see in a movie this big. It feels like a summer blockbuster, only classier.

In Oscar speak, it’s “Cast Away” meets “Zero Dark Thirty.”

It’s an enviable problem to have, but if the amount of must-see movies doesn’t slow to a trickle soon, you’re going to need a lot more than six extra weeks to catch up.

• • •

Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com

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