Just a few things would help director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “United 93”) take most of his films from great to excellent. Shooting in a more conventional style would be a start.

In his “Bourne” films, and in “Captain Phillips,” the lack of conventionality with his shaky-cam ways limits the potential of his film. Despite this style, the film is not without its merits.

Based on true events, Tom Hanks plays merchant mariner Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship traveling to Mombasa, Kenya, is hijacked by four Somali pirates. The hostile and armed pirates are led by the enigmatic Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Phillips’ crew admirably attempts to save its captain’s life after the pirates reject a $30,000 offering, but the crew’s efforts are in vain. Muse wants to hold Phillips for a larger ransom, and when the crew cannot meet his demands, the pirates take a lifeboat, and Phillips along with it.

The plot culminates in the U.S. Navy working to save Phillips through tactical planning and amazing skill. This scene will have you on tenterhooks right to the very end. It is long and tense, and extremely well-acted by Hanks and newcomer Abdi.

The Navy has not received much praised for its deft handling and recovery of the situation. Granted, the Navy would refuse public praise.

The film’s running time is 134 minutes, but it only feels like 60. It is easy to become emotionally invested in this story. “Phillips” could have been a three-hour feature, and the majority of viewers would not have minded.

Greengrass explored the military rescue mission; however, he could easily have included more scenes with the favorite Hanks and the newcomer Abdi. Their relationship is perfect dramatic cinema. Muse runs into interpersonal issues with his crew, and Phillips offers sage advice from an experienced captain’s perspective. These moments inspire sympathy for a hostile Somali pirate.

Unfortunately, Greengrass’ voyeuristic  style sometimes undercuts the exceptional ability of his actors, and his editing does them a disservice, too. Too much time is spent with the members of the military, who should remain more faceless and nameless out of respect.

Even though there is no shortage of praise for this movie, Greengrass for the most part should expand his range of cinematography. “Phillips” is a first-rate sea thriller. Hanks is tremendous; he will bring tears to your eyes.

In an interview with “Today” host Matt Lauer, Abdi said he improvised the line used in all of the trailers – the one where he says “I’m the captain now.” If that is true, then it will not just be Hanks who merits an Oscar nod.

“Captain Phillips” = 4/5

Image courtesy of Julia Suber