Imagine Ken Loach spliced with Christopher Nolan: that's quite a package.
Captain Phillips falls closest to the former category of the director's work. It is based on a true story, the hijack by Somali pirates of the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama in 2009; he utilises a number of newcomers and outright non-actors to add to the sense of authenticity; and with the help of his trademark even-handedness towards his characters, and hand-held, quick-cutting, no-nonsense style, it plays like an objective procedural of sea hijack and rescue.
What makes Captain Phillips very different to, say, United 93, and to Danish film A Hijacking, which covered similar territory earlier this year, is the presence of Hollywood royalty in the role of the eponymous captain.
That said, Tom Hanks is never one to sparkle unnecessarily in roles; in fact, he's possibly under-rated as one of the truest of star actors, not as much an Everyman as a Regular Joe, who can slip into most roles with the utmost integrity. He's perfectly cast as the solid, decent, capable Phillips.
The film opens with Phillips at his pleasant Vermont home, preparing for sea, then driving to the airport with his wife. They talk about the state of the world, and the increasingly tough work environment awaiting their kids. It's day-to-day stuff, banal. Then we cut to Somalia and a village whose inhabitants have more pressing concerns - poverty, their income from fishing eroded by foreign fishing fleets, and the warlords demanding they go to sea for another kind of catch. When it's time to hijack another Western ship, Muse (Barkhad Abdi) shakes himself awake and steps forward. He has no choice.
Greengrass and his writer Billy Ray have laid their cards on the table immediately: this isn't going to be a black and white tale of the west triumphing over those third-world bad guys. Instead, there's the attempt to understand what sends the hijackers to sea - financial need combined with violent pressure. As the Somali will later repeatedly tell his captives: "It's only business."
Muse and a fellow captain choose the crews for their skiffs, like boys in a playground picking their sides for soccer. The same matter-of-fact realism applies as we rejoin Phillips in Oman, where he boards the Alabama and instructs his crew for the journey to Kenya, via the Somali basin.
At sea, they are going through their security drills when a "real world situation" rears up behind them. What follows -- as the Somalis pursue and board the Alabama, the power struggle between Phillips and Muse, the eventual involvement of the US Navy - is intensely gripping, whether you know the outcome or not.
The film isn't quite as egalitarian as it might have been: the title itself is unfortunate, and Muse's crew could have a little more nuance. But Muse, the fisherman turned hijacker with idle dreams of a better life in America, is commendably complex, thanks to the writing, screen time afforded him, and a wily, sympathetic turn by the newcomer Abdi.
That said, it really is Hanks's movie, and includes some of the best work he's ever done. The final scene, which encapsulates the fear, physical abuse and mental strain his character has endured, is extraordinary, and intensely moving.
As for Greengrass, the man can do no wrong. And I haven't even mentioned Jason Bourne.