I wasn't sure about this one - I remember the actual hijacking back in the spring of 2009 and I remember how it ended, so I wasn't sure how compelling the movie would be. (I know that's not a great argument - I go see Shakespeare plays all the time when I know how they'll end, so . . .) But I was amazed that I caught myself holding my breath with tension. Paul Greengrass, who is best known for the Bourne movies, as well as another film inspired by actual events, United 93, does a masterful job of ratcheting up the action. (A little too much shaky-cam for my taste, though - I want this trend to go ahead and pass.) He uses an interesting framing device at the start of the film as you see Phillips and Muse, who will become the head pirate, both essentially getting ready for work. The film does a very nice job of not creating cookie-cutter villains, but instead rounding them out and presenting the audience with a more nuanced view. These are not dashing, wear-a-stuffed-parrot pirates; these are desperate, frightened, hungry men, often half out of their minds on large amounts of khat, and they are not acting as a unified, well-trained team. It's nearly a miracle no one gets badly hurt earlier. Greengrass even generated some sympathy in me for the plight the pirates are in - Somalia is essentially a failed state and people want to survive - but, at the end of the day, I'm rooting for Team Hanks. (But don't overlook Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse. First time out of the gate, and he holds his own with Hanks.)
Captain Phillips was made with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy and other government agencies, so naturally they appear well-trained, calm, and frighteningly efficient. One of the takeaway messages of this movie is definitely "Don't mess with the U.S. military." My father was a Navy pilot, so I heartily endorse this message. The Navy and the SEALS aren't reckless cowboy types - they've got a job to do and by golly, they're going to do it. Hanks' Phillips is a man in a situation that's spiraling rapidly out of control and he's trying hard to stay calm and stay alive, but he was never trained for this - the military personnel were and the final few minutes, when that contrast is made sharply evident, completely sold me on Hanks' acting.
If you're looking for a great thriller, this is the movie for you.