Being based on a true story is not necessarily a bonus for any film, nor is it a requirement to make a film better. However, in some circumstances, it does help, such as here in Captain Phillips where director Paul Greengrass strives hard for a strong sense of realism.
This is a movie that is free of cliche movie plotlines, like crew members having a problem with the captain or being disobedient, that has to be worked out through the course of the movie. Greengrass only gives us a slight hint of that, but never takes it anywhere, almost as if to remind us what could have been done with this film. Instead what we gt are professionals doing their jobs in a stressful situation, which is much more compelling. Whats happening on screen feels like its actually happening (which actually did happen, so it makes sense).
This is a tense thriller, make no mistakes. I loved the way in which the crew made smart decisions to fend off the pirates, like the glass. I liked the way you always felt that they were in danger, and I liked the initial chase scene. The only time the pacing lets up is when the movie shifts focus (and location) half way through. Immediately following that, it gets a little drawn out, but picks back up again as things build to their resolution.
This is a very good movie. Greengrass does a great job of setting up the realism in the story where other directors would have fallen into convention. The opening scene with Phillips and his wife could have been sappy but instead felt authentic. The pirates were shown in a light where we understood why they were doing this, but without being sympathetic. And Hanks did a great job of sinking into the role of a regular man doing his best to stay calm and in control, until the point where he simply no longer can.