Captain Phillips ★★★★

Like Zero Dark Thirty earlier this year, Captain Philips wisely sidesteps facile patriotism by focusing on how intractable political or ideological conflicts are largely fought by middlemen. Paul Greengrass, working from a script by Billy Ray, reworks the still relatively famous story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking and subsequent kidnapping of its captain, into the story of middle managers trying to keep their bosses happy. On one side, there's Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks with his customary dignified reserve) - the captain of a cargo ship who frets about how his bosses need things run fast and cheap. On the other, there's Muse - a thin, bony Somali pirate, played with remarkable confidence by newcomer Barkhad Abdi - who has to keep his warlord bosses happy by fishing something big. Later, they are joined by the captain of a warship, operating under strict orders from the US government not to let the pirates reach Somalia with their captive. And finally, there's the commander of the Navy Seals team who has to execute a bloody, yet precise operation, and does so with frighteningly clinical exactness.

Though they're depicted as small cogs that keep bigger, largely nebulous entities running, neither Muse, nor Phillips lack dimension. On the contrary, the contradictory pressures of their positions as both authority figures and subalterns is what fuels a conflict that's is never any less than tense, despite an already fixed outcome. Already a pretty suspenseful cat-and-mouse game in its first hour or so, as the crew of the Maersk tries to outwit the four desperate highjackers, the film turns into an unbearably visceral thriller after Muse and his men take Phillips hostage aboard a small rescue boat. When the inevitably violent climax finally happens, it's less of a triumphant moment, as it is one of terrible, heartbreaking release - and one of the best performances of Hanks' career.