LONDON - "Captain Phillips" provided a sober kickoff to the London Film Festival on Wednesday, segueing into an Opening Night party that was, thankfully, anything but. It was, in many respects, the right choice of curtain-raiser: riveting enough to hold a large audience, cinematic enough to fill the huge screen of the Odeon Leicester Square, with the added value of a homegrown director in Paul Greengrass and a red-carpet draw in star Tom Hanks. Also -- and not to put too fine a point on this, but the horrors of 2011 opener "360" haven't yet been forgotten -- it's actually a good film.

Still, it wasn't exactly a celebratory one, and if I felt an odd twinge after walking from this two-hour-plus reconstruction of an unimaginable human ordeal into an evening of amaretto sours and celebrity-spotting -- not to mention imagining the unheard exchanges between Tom Hanks, Tom Ford and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband -- that was largely to the film's credit.

"Captain Phillips" isn't misery porn, and it's too brisk and orderly to feel like it's wallowing in the title character's pain -- even with that pain stretched to 134 minutes. But it is a film more about suffering than survival, one content to present both its white middle-class hostage and his have-not captors as differing kinds of victim. Where some of Greengrass' other fact-based films have pursued a stony detachment from the atrocities under scrutiny, this one boasts a passionless moral conscience: questions of right and wrong are in play here, if not actively addressed. More, perhaps, than in any of his previous work -- even the Oscar-winning whiz-bang pyrotechnics of "The Bourne Ultimatum" -- Greengrass is luxuriating in the heft of Hollywood studio craft, but his film's upper lip is resolutely stiff.

In a sense, the ironclad craft of "Captain Phillips" is its narrative: many viewers will already be aware how Richard Phillips' story turned out, so it's the mechanics and sensory realities of the situation that hold more intrigue than the outcome. (If any recent film better defines the difference between "tension" and "suspense," I can't think of it.) Billy Ray's script is a thing of terse proficiency, but editor Christopher Rouse and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd -- both on their most disciplined, electrified form, with Ackroyd rebounding from the botched aesthetic of last week's release "Parkland" -- play as much of a storytelling role here, vividly defining physical space and perspective, shrinking and modifying both in accordance with the characters' exact degree of panic.

The film boasts a very good performance by Tom Hanks, and an even better one by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, with the former astonishing in a closing scene that opens the faucet on the professional retention of fear and feeling that Phillips maintains throughout his kidnapping. It's as emotionally acute a moment as Hanks has ever had on screen, and is destined for Oscar-clip status, even if its climactic catharsis -- while hardly in spoiler territory -- shouldn't really be viewed out of context.

Abdi is granted no such moment, which makes the psychological specificity of his hair-trigger invader Muse all the more impressive: a visibly nervous captain with none of Phillips' patience or practicality, he nonetheless has a go-for-broke desperation -- born of nothing-to-lose social circumstance -- that somehow wrests him the upper hand for much of the fracas, even as his inevitable defeat looms large. Days later, I'm still wondering if the strength of Abdi's performance -- abetted by those of his three wired, restless Somali co-stars -- lets the film off the hook for an element of indecision in its characterization of the pirates: Ray's script grants them broadly sympathetic motivation, but little personal detail or backstory. Perhaps he and Greengrass were cautious of assuming a patronizing, bleeding-heart tone toward the criminals while also requiring viewers to root for a heroic escape that can only end badly for them.

If "Captain Phillips" finally amounts to no more than the sum of its parts -- not exactly a slight when the parts are this considerable -- it may be the artifice of its assumed objectivity that's getting in the way; it's the rare film that might seem a little more even-handed if it were a little more expressive. (I have similar reservations about Greengrass' much-revered "United 93," so obviously mileage will vary on this one too.)

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