Captain Philips doesn't reach the dramatic highs of United 93 or the quick cutting intensity of The Bourne Ultimatum, but Greengrass' cine-veritê style has enough punch for Philips to ascend not only as one of the best thrillers of the year, but as one of the best films this year. Philips cleverly opens by following two captains on either side of the globe, each charging up for a mission at sea. Their settings couldn't be farther apart, one from a routine middle class home and the other a filthy hut in a poor island village, but as the opening moments carry on, similarities emerge. The screenplay goes some ways stress these parallels, but like much of the film, we're left with forced dialogue looking to be perceptive. We are told both characters have a boss, both exist in a pre-ordained system in which they have no ultimate authority and where their longevity as people depends on their obedience to this system. Despite the radical difference in background, capitalism has entwined these two men together, like two managers of rival corporations fighting for a career making kill. The capitalist subtext isn't subtle and doesn't pretend to be, but it's the stark direction and performances that helps the dialogue escape harsh comparisons to the opening lecture of your average freshman year sociology seminar. An unforgiving number of key moments suffer from transparent sermon syndrome, and a stronger screenplay would have had Captain Philips standing as a deeply relevant and proactive drama.
But, incredibly, the screenwriting missteps didn't impede the intensity whatsoever. My theater's attendants were still. Greengrass had them by the throat, and the few moments they could take a breath followed immediately with shock and even terror. There's few innovations to his signature style, but it works wonders, especially when cross cutting between the frenzy of charging boats and the lumbering freighter. Though there's never any doubt who the villains are, the constantly emphasized semblance between the two captains thickened the drama immensely. Because each character has been painted as a victim, most characters are treated in an uncomfortably effective sympathetic light, causing viewers to care about the "evil" hijackers more than the conventional film might have allowed.
Adding to the forceful tension gleaned from the one-false-move-and-you're-done-for maneuvering around the massive freighter, these elements of nuance forge a singular air of suspense that's frankly missing in the majority of studio movies. Tom Hanks gives one of the best performances of his career that escalates tension further still: it's a masterful balancing act between asserting control into a situation that doesn't have any, and constantly coming close to pushing too far. If for none other reason than the raw emotion Hanks sells in the third act, this man deserves an oscar nomination, and probably will get one. While no single element stands out as a 'best in show' for this year's best example of bravado filmmaking, the excellence found within Captain Philips' tough execution is so high, it will find no problem ranking high on end of year best of lists.