A lot of people are going to be talking about the last ten minutes of Captain Phillips for a long time; right up until awards season no doubt. And while, yes, the closing moments of the film are phenomenal, focusing solely on them almost does a disservice to the rest of the film, which is a taut, thought provoking, based-on-a-true-story thriller that will have your heart pounding.
Tom Hanks plays the titular Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama freight ship that, back in 2009, during a routine transport through Somalian waters was hijacked by pirates. Director Paul Greengrass, who has previous experience in dramatising true stories on film with 9/11 drama United 93, steers the ship with an even hand, even when his trademark kinetic camerawork isn’t. Not a criticism; as with his Bourne movies the so-called ‘shakycam’ adds a cinema verité/documentary style to proceedings which only helps to increase the tension.
And what tension. You might think a film based on a widely reported story, and such a recent one at that, would have a by-the-numbers feel. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the ship is eventually hijacked, yet knowing this doesn’t detract from the nail biting nature of the attack. And later when we’re confined to a small life raft, maximum tension is wrung from the sparsest of action. While the US Navy eventually get involved with their massive battleships dwarfing the tiny life raft, and decisions are made in the corridors of power about what to do should the pirates reach Somalia with Phillips as their hostage, nothing compares to the palpable dread you can feel with just five men in a tiny space.
Hanks, so adept at playing the everyman under extreme pressure, is on predictably excellent form here running the full gamut of emotions, from being calm and collected when first boarded to despair and near catatonia as time goes on. Drawing from varying aspects of characters he’s played in the past; most obviously there are shades of the resilience in his Castaway performance with which this film shares a fleeting resemblance, as well as the cool headed pragmatism of his Apollo 13 performance. Yet it never feels like you’re watching Hanks ‘act.’ As the pirates, newcomer Barkhad Abdi makes the biggest impression as lead pirate Muse delivering a strong performance that in a different film we could find ourselves rooting for. It’s a shame that the other pirates are almost archetypes – the unhinged violent one, the in over his head one – but the central relationship between Muse and Phillips is never less than stellar.
Greengrass and writer Billy Ray do well to present both sides of the ensuing conflict, intercutting Phillips’ drive to work, during which he frets about his home life and his son’s job prospects, with the introduction of the pirates and their daily grind to get enough money to pay their bosses. Right from the off it’s clear that this won’t be a straight forward good versus evil tale. As with United 93 the film includes some sly commentary, this time on the state of global economics which essentially drives the plot. When the pirates first board the reassurance that there is ‘No Al Qaeda here, just business’ is given and it’s almost as if Muse feels justified in what he does, yet later when Phillips wonders aloud that there must be more than piracy for these four men, and by extension their whole tribe, the reply comes loaded with political subtext – ‘Maybe in America.’ It’s not a line that’s lingered on or even paid too much attention but it cuts to the heart of the film. These men aren’t evil; it’s just their lot in life.
Which brings us back to those final moments. It’s rare that a fairly mainstream film has you completely unsure of how you want events to play out, and even rarer that come the resolution you’re not sure of how to feel. Is this a triumphant ending or a downbeat one? It’s impossible to pigeonhole.
Gripping, complex and intelligent, it is an incredible film.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
Thanks to our sponsors at the Odyssey Cinemas
Don’t forget to book your tickets for Captain Phillips at the Odyssey Cinemas here.