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With 'Captain Phillips,' Tom Hanks Is Back in The Oscar Hunt (Analysis)

The actor could earn his first Academy Award nomination in 13 years for his portrayal of the captain of a hijacked U.S. cargo ship in the drama, which will open the New York Film Festival.

Paul Greengrass has made a heart-pounding thriller that recreates a recent real-world terrorist situation, showing Americans being taken hostage by foreigners and then cutting back-and-forth between them and their countrymen who spring into action to try to save them. In fact, he has made two such films. The first, United 93, about the hijacking of a U.S. aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, opened in April 2006 and ultimately earned Oscar nominations for best director and best film editing. And his newest film Captain Phillips follows the hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship by Somali pirates on April 12, 2009. It will kick-off the 51st New York Film Festival on Sept. 27 before being released by Sony nationwide on Oct. 11.

FILM REVIEW: Captain Phillips

Both films faithfully recreate the events that they depict. Phillips is less polished than United, but unlike United, its subtext concerns America's role in the world in the 21st century. Depending on how strongly that point is conveyed to Academy members, I think that Captain Phillips has the potential to score noms in the categories of best picture (for The Social Network team of Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Scott Rudin), best director (Greengrass), best actor (Tom Hanks), best supporting actor (Barkhad Abdi), best adapted screenplay (Billy Ray), best film editing (Christopher Rouse, who was nominated for United 93 and won for Greengrass' The Bourne Ultimatum) and best original score (Henry Jackman).

Phillips focuses on the experience of Capt. Richard Phillips, a decent, working-class, all-American family man -- making it a no-brainer to cast Hanks in the part -- who has a job, takes it seriously and expects those around him to do the same. (Think of the central characters in Howard Hawks' films like Only Angels Have Wings.) Aware of the inherent risks of his latest assignment, which is to bring the Maersk through a pirate-filled Somali strait to Mombasa, Kenya, he drills his crew to make sure that they are as prepared as possible for the worst. Unfortunately, without live arms and with only powerful hoses at their disposal to fend off potential intruders, that does not proves to be enough when a relatively sophisticated raid of the ship eventually comes -- the first successful pirate capture of a U.S. ship since the 19th century.

As was the case with last year's Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, along with many other recent ripped-from-the-headlines films, anyone who pays attention to the news already knows how this story ends. What determines whether or not films of this sort are still worth the ride, though, are the ways in which they fill in they fill in the grey areas of their stories. Greengrass' film provides insights into the ship's mission and the pirates' underlying grievances, and the incident becomes a microcosm of the 21st century's ongoing war on terrorism.

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What audiences are likely to remember longest about Captain Phillips is how gripping it is from the moment the Somalis enter the picture until the moment they exit it -- thanks in no small part to rapid-fire editing and thumping music -- and how good it is to see Hanks really acting again. His performance in Captain Phillips, particularly late in the film, ranks among his finest. Thirteen years after his last Oscar nomination, for Cast Away, it's good to have him back.

Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottFeinberg for additional news and analysis.