The kind of film writing that starts with "it's the Oscar time of year and I want to discuss a movie's Oscar prospects" is one that I actively try to eschew, because it's not really reviewing, it's gossip. That being said, I hope that nobody minds if I do it on very rare occasions, because I'm compelled to do it right now. Viz, if Barkhad Abdi isn't nominated for Best Supporting Actor for i>Captain Phillips, then fuck the whole world. Every inch of it. This isn't one of those cinephile Oscar plugs where we talk about things that clearly cannot happen just to seem superior to the mainstream ("Oh, come on, no Tabu for Best Editing? What kind of clown college are you running over there?") - the studio is actively campaigning for him in a film all but guaranteed to pick up another acting nod anyway, and he is that good.

Abdi plays the leader of a ragtag bunch of Somali pirates who, in 2009, attempted to hijack the U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama, and when that went wrong, kidnapped her commander, Captain Richard Phillips (played here by Tom Hanks), and held him for ransom. The story is recent enough that it should be no surprise the Phillips survived his ordeal (they'd hardly make a "Based on a true story" Oscar season thriller if the white guy played by the famous actor died horribly and in an uninspiring way, after all), but that's part of how you can tell that Captain Phillips is a good piece of moviemaking. It is nail-biting and fleet-footed (133-minute films don't go by any faster) and genuinely suspenseful even though a hugely lopsided portion of its audience already knows how things end.

That, itself, is hardly surprising, given that the film was directed by Paul Greengrass, who is extravagantly good at two things: wringing unbearable tension out of generic situations and smuggling little political parables in under the surface. This is his third thriller taken from a real situation, after Bloody Sunday and United 93, though unlike those two films, the factuality of Captain Phillips isn't really emphasised; hell, even the fictional Green Zone, his last film, feels more nakedly tethered to real life than this story, which is above all else a taut battle of wills, more a chess game than an action thriller, in which two men with wildly different skill sets and assumptions about how the world works try to outwit one another.

And so we come back to Abdi, and can pick up Hanks along the way, for the great bulk of the film is comprised in some manner of those two actors sparring with each other in a cramped metal tube. It's not a two-hander; there are three other pirates, all of whom play a significant role in the action, and the film often cuts to the attempt to track and rescue Phillips before the situation escalates, and the first act of the movie takes place on the Maersk Alabama before the pirates even show up. But the meat of the film lies in watching two desperate men attempting to seem strong and unafraid, hoping to gain the upper hand mostly through strength of will. And both actors are just terrific at it, with Hanks giving the first really exciting performance of his career since Cast Away, culminating in a post-rescue scene where he's gibbering in shock that might be the most technically accomplished scene of the man's entire career.

You will notice, perhaps, that what this also does is to give Abdi's Muse a great deal of weight and humanity within the film's scheme - even as a straight-up antagonist, he needs to be as real as Phillips for their pas de deux to work, and anyway, the film isn't really anxious to make him a straight-up antagonist. The opening sequence makes this explicit: a scene of Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener, bizarrely adding weight to a 90-second cameo) traveling to the airport for his upcoming assignment to cart food southwest off the coast of Somalia is followed by a scene of the local warlord throwing his weight around and demanding that the starving villagers in his thrall capture him a ship or else. Thus we have the weird but brilliant equivalence, even before the pirates cross Phillips's path, that both sides of the conflict are made up of regular working schmucks, beholden to impersonal bosses who don't care if you live or die, as long as you get the work done. Impressively, the film manages to make this very clear argument - the Somalis are driven by desperation and necessity, and the alternative to piracy isn't not-piracy, it's death by starvation - without letting the pirates off the hook for their actions. It's the balance I've been most curious about ever since the project made itself known: would Greengrass, a purveyor exclusively of liberal-leaning narratives, really play up the "brown people are savage" element of the story, or would he make a full-on apologia for Somlia's grueling poverty? The answer was always going to be "something in-between" though the way that the film ends up humanising its nominal villains to exactly the degree that it takes to give the film a sturdy moral backbone but not too much to upset its function as a survival thriller is impressive. It is an entertaining movie before it is a social tract, but it is immaculately well-made in both of those guises.

This is ultimately a thrill machine, anyway, and an outstandingly well-made one, though with editing by Greengrass's reliable Christopher Rouse and cinematography by Barry Ackroyd, of such grabby works of naturalist action as The Hurt Locker and Greengrass's own Green Zone, it would be more surprising if that wasn't the case. It's a different vocabulary for this filming team: the greatest part of the movie is set in a punishingly cramped space, which if nothing else means that the machine-gun editing that typifies Rouse and Greengrass's work together has to be toned significantly back. Still, the thing rages along, keeping the viewer constantly aggravated and on-edge from the sheer momentum of the visuals and the bellowing sound mix. At which point I might mention that there comes a moment, when the crisis is all done and Phillips can be alone for the first time, where the sound drops off and is replaced with exaggerated realism and tinny echoing, and it is as abrupt a switch as the movies can accommodate - it is a miraculous gesture of sound design that kicks us bodily into the film's wrap-up stage with the same jarring force that Phllips himself feels in that moment, and it's lethally potent cinema. It also makes it hard for me to fathom how anyone could view the ultimate defeat of the pirates as some kind of triumphalist chest-pounding moment, when the whole edifice of the movie is attempting to throttle us into shock, but there will always be those among us who watch movies the wrong way and take pride in doing so.

It lacks the bite of Greengrass's best overtly political work, and the aesthetic radicalism of his pair of Jason Bourne thrillers, but all in all, Captain Phillips is terrific stuff: a relentless thriller with a real sense of the human cost of its thrills, and tremendous craft on both sides of the camera. It has popcorn on its mind, for sure, but it's extravagantly smart too, and there's no populist entertainment more satisfying than that.