Film review: Captain Phillips
Richard James Havis
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Director: Paul Greengrass
This visceral drama, expertly directed by Paul Greengrass, stars Tom Hanks as the captain of a container ship that's captured by a violent gang of Somali pirates and held to ransom.
A technical tour de force, some naturalistic acting from pirates and crew alike, and a fast-moving script make for a gripping film which never sacrifices realism for excitement.
Adapted from the autobiographical A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals, and Dangerous Days at Sea by the real-life Richard Phillips, the story begins with the captain bidding farewell to his wife (Catherine Keener), who laments his departure for another long trip, this time on the container ship MV Maersk Alabama.
As soon as he arrives on board, Phillips, a solid and experienced seafarer, checks the ship's security procedures, as he's aware that they might encounter Somali pirates on their voyage.
Meanwhile, in Somalia, the bandit Muse (Barkhad Abdi) puts together a rag-tag band of pirates anxious to earn some cash by bagging a passing vessel.
The two very different groups of seafarers meet off the coast of Somalia. The Alabama initially manages to outrun the pirates, but they finally take over the ship.
What follows is action-packed and psychologically tense by turns; Captain Phillips tries to trick and manipulate the pirates into keeping his ship safe until it can be rescued by the mighty US Navy, while his adversaries do their utmost to make the authorities so scared for his life that they'll pay a few million dollars in ransom.
Although our sympathy always lies, inevitably, with the beleaguered captain, the pirates are shown in a human light - they are dirt-poor fishermen whose dire economic situation leads them to prey on ships.
Hanks gives his best-ever screen performance, and an atypical one, as Phillips. The actor's characters are usually dominated by his star persona, but here you quickly forget about him - he turns into Phillips.
Hanks' popularity has always been down to his way of appearing to be an ordinary guy coping with extraordinary circumstances, and this role gives him plenty of opportunity to explore that. The greatness of this performance lies in its understatement: Phillips is scared, but he has to remain cool in the face of his captors.
Captain Phillips' technical qualities are top-notch, too. Greengrass already has an impressive résumé which includes the hijacking drama United 93 and the IRA movie Bloody Sunday, but this proves to be his best offering. He shot the film on real boats in a real sea; the cast and crew consequently threw up a lot, sometimes over each other. The realism of the situation permeates this masterful movie.
Captain Phillips opens on October 24