Tom Hanks gives a career-best performance in this intense drama, fraught with tension from the outset.
This latest film from Paul Greengrass’ (Bourne Supremacy, Bourne Ultimatum), takes its name from lead protagonist, Captain Phillips, and charts the 2009 Somalian hijacking of US cargo ship Maersk Alabama - the first hijacking of a US freight ship in two-hundred years.
Captain Phillips quickly moves forward from its initial clues and awkward suspense building - Phillip’s peruses the Maersk paperwork with a look of trepidation and embarks on cautious security tightening, ‘we’re going around the horn of Africa right?’ - to formidable, anxiety inducing tension.
The screenplay from Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) is perfectly balanced, building the tension before momentarily dissipating it, only to resume the onslaught once again, each time raising the bar even higher.
This smart pacing of the tension makes Captain Phillips an engrossing and thoroughly gripping drama that never burns out.
It’s a cinematic roller-coaster that’s exhausting to the nerves.
Captain Phillips has a vivid sense of realism enhanced by Greengrass’ decision to film on open waters and rough seas. Greengrass makes his film feel both epic and intimate, with wide, ocean vistas yielding to sharp close-ups and confined spaces.
As Phillips (Tom Hanks) and gang leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) trade eye-contact through their binoculars,
the vast open sea instantly shrinks and the nerve-shredding conflict begins in earnest.
As Phillips, Tom Hanks weighs in with an Oscar-worthy performance that pulls us right into the centre of this fraught and emotionally demanding event. The contrast between what Phillips is thinking, feeling, planning, and what he is able to say magnifies the building tension.
Despite the film’s large scale, Hanks’ powerhouse talent makes Captain Phillips an intensely personal film, as Phillips communicates his inner feelings through mere flickers in his eyes. The pirates’ naive view of hostage scenarios and their demands is sharply contrasted with Phillip’s sad, silent realisation that this is not how the world works - it’s a poignant moment that is keenly felt.
First time Somalian actor, Barkhad Abdi also demonstrates the weight of his talent as gang leader, Muse. Terrifying in his determination, Abdi is staggering in his sheer command of the screen. Ruthless and yet tempered by a green hopefulness, the Somali’s story is very much seated in his different life experiences.
While Greengrass’ film momentarily strays into American patriotism and propaganda, this is mitigated by Muse’s perception of America as a land of selfish wealth. Phillip’s suggestion that there must be other ways to survive than piracy is met by Muse’s perspective, ‘maybe in America’.
It’s a response that’s open to interpretation. Meanwhile we remain very much aware that Muse’s perception of, and admiration for, America - his desire to drive around New York City in an expensive car - is misplaced.
These underlying themes of globalisation and the changing economy give Captain Phillip’s much of its resonance and depth, being built into Ray’s script from its understated opener.
Phillips’ everyday concerns about his son’s future in an increasingly competitive economy are intelligently placed side-by-side with struggling Somalian communities clamouring for the opportunity to join Muse’s operation. Phillips’ acceptance that the world is changing cleverly sets the scene for the rise of modern piracy and provides the thematic backbone of Ray’s screenplay.
An incredible display of talent, Captain Phillips’ is a compelling piece of cinema. The sheer onslaught of tension is exhausting, while the emotionally demanding performances have long-lasting potency. Captain Phillips grips to its very final scene and sets a new standard for action film-making that’s not to be missed.
Running Time: 134 minutes