It’s the movie stunning audiences with its thrilling account of a high-seas hijack. Smart, powerfully acted, and incredibly intense, Captain Phillips offers filmgoers a Hollywood biopic done right, and offers Tom Hanks a showcase for yet another brilliant performance.
Tom Hanks is superb as the captain of a hijacked ship in a nail-biter that manages to tell both sides of the story. This movie gives a global context to forces driving pirates and terrorism. Credit undoubtedly to Director Paul Greengrass, as the movie never sacrifices subtlety for kineticism.
Two things about this riveting dramatisation of a real-life hijacking from 2009 tell you that you’re watching a Paul Greengrass film. First, there is the urgent handheld camera work, a directorial trademark refined and perfected by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, which lends an air of pseudo-documentary authenticity to carefully staged reconstructions, putting us right there in the middle of the action.
Then there is the wider perspective. Whilst the title name is that of the American sea captain upon whose book this movie is partly based, our first encounter with the young Somalis who chase and board the gigantic Maersk Alabama is on the shores of their homeland, delving briefly but significantly into the poverty that drives fishermen to risk life and limb in pursuit of deep sea big game.
For all its action aesthetics and nail-biting, gut-wrenching tension, this is on some level a film about globalisation, about what happens when the paths of the very poor and the very rich intersect in the crossfire of world economics.
Tom Hanks gives the performance of a lifetime as the eponymous Phillips, the former Boston cabbie turned hard-working sea captain who earns an increasingly hard-won dollar piloting vast ships through treacherous waters without clear backup or onboard protection. As two tiny skiffs skeeter across the ocean toward the Maersk Alabama, we see Phillips sending out a distress signal, “They’re not here to fish!”, only to be told to observe standard protocol and hang tight. “Is that it?” he asks, turning on the hoses, swinging the rudders, grabbing a flare, suddenly aware of how isolated he and his ship have become.
As the working man out of his depths in murky waters, having to make life-and-death decisions in explosively confrontational circumstances, Hanks combines the everyman charm of the morally resolute Jimmy Stewart with the growing sense of heroism that underwrote his cool-headed Jim Lovell in Apollo 13. From the early scenes of buttoned-down, pressed-shirt reserve to the later gruelling episodes of Castaway-style physical degradation, he rarely misses a beat.
Once the pirates are on board this becomes a tale of a ship with two captains, and it’s critical that Hanks is matched by an equal and opposite force to prevent the drama from becoming unbalanced. Greengrass has found in the shape of newcomer Barkhad Abdi, an electrifying screen presence who brilliantly captures both the raging determination and embattled desperation of the pirates’ emergent leader, Muse. At their first on-screen confrontation, the seasoned Hollywood pro and fiery first-timer produce tangible sparks as Muse orders Phillips to “Look me in the eye – I’m the captain now!” Inevitably, the power struggle between these two men becomes emblematic of the film’s wider culture-clash themes, with both depicted as pawns in a much larger game over which neither has any control.
The movie blurs the lines between reconstruction and reality, something that underpins Greengrass’s distinctive directorial style.
Captain Phillips moves into its third act, filled with claustrophobic lifeboat chases, night vision Navy Seal deployments and cross-hair tension on an epic scale, Greengrass has achieved his ultimate goal – the total suspension of disbelief. Moreover, he has shown us once again that mainstream cinema can be both visceral and intelligent, grabbing the audience by the throat without ever cutting off the oxygen supply to their brain.
One wonders what Ron Howard would have made of it; he was originally slated to direct Captain Phillips while Greengrass was developing Rush, the two film-makers ultimately swapping projects with rewarding results for both. I can’t imagine anyone other than Greengrass handling this material, the story seemingly tailormade for his trademark blend of political clout, dramatic punch, thespian wallop and broad audience appeal.
Captain Phillips is not an easy pill to swallow but it is well worth a watch. Make sure you allow time for a stiff drink afterwards – you’re going to need it.
By Ruth Walker