British director Paul Greengrass started out his career in journalism, before moving onto documentary filmmaking and then into fiction, bringing us the acclaimed Bourne trilogy. This year he combines his talents with action thriller ‘Captain Phillips’, based upon the book, ‘A Captain’s Duty’ in which American cargo ship Maersk Alabama is hijacked by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks stars as the eponymous leader, Richard Phillips, a grounded family man who takes a stand against the armed assailants who overrun the vessel on the hunt for a big payout. He vows to protect his crew at all costs leading to a fascinating hostage situation allowing for an in-depth character study in an intensely claustrophobic environment. This is a gripping account of an incredible true story, helped along by two excellent central performances and expertly applied direction.
The narrative builds quickly, the camera stalking Phillips’ every move from the outset as he prepares to guide his ship around the Somalian coast from Djibouti to Mombasa. Rather obvious emotioneering techniques are used in the opening third as he talks about his children’s uncertain future and bids a fond farewell to his loving wife. To me, Phillips appears to have lost passion for his profession, the long trips taking him away for his family for too long at a time, but he continues to carry out the tasks at hand with brutal efficiency. Similarly, we also interestingly see pirate chief Muse and his squad of criminals take to the seas, giving a little background to their morally contrasting but equally determined mission.
Ultimately, the forces soon collide in spectacularly nail biting chase segment when Muse’s tiny boat sets its sights on Phillips’ colossal craft. The use of shaky cam combined with visual graininess offers documentary-like authenticity as we see the real events unfold before our eyes. Around two thirds in, the plot does stall in the same place for slightly too long but when Phillips’ harrowing journey reaches its conclusion, it is worth the wait with an emotionally charged stand out scene, which should result in audiences rising from their seats somewhat jelly-legged.
In portraying Phillips’ not as the typical action hero, but as an everyman, Tom Hanks’ is the perfect option, and I cannot imagine anyone else doing a better job. He excels in a role which is not always likeable, but easy to relate to from start to finish, taking us through the waves of emotion with him as an individual whose moral compass is unfaltering. Also very impressive is Barkhad Abdi as Muse in his acting debut, providing a multi-layered turn as a villain wishing to create a better standard of living for himself, but with an unfortunately narrow set of skills. The relationship between these two captains is tense and unpredictable, aided by a nicely crafted screenplay by Billy Ray, adapted from the aforementioned text written by Phillips himself.
It is hard to recall many films that have achieved such a persistently simmering intensity throughout in the way that ‘Captain Phillips’ does. The enclosed and imprisoning setting perhaps draws slight similarities with the Dog Day Afternoon-esque hostage scenario, given the misguided, nearly empathetic outlaws, albeit on a vastly different stage. Putting minor problems aside such as the a dragged out lifeboat segment, and an overbearing score, Greengrass directs with flair, effectively implementing docu-style elements and building unmerciful suspense climaxing in an astounding finale to crown what is arguably Hanks’ career defining performance.