Jack Sparrow is thankfully nowhere to be seen in this buttock-clenching high seas hijack thriller from shaky-cam supremo Paul Greengrass.
No longer the preserve of men with ridiculous beards, pet parrots and a penchant for rum, piracy nevertheless remains a very clear and present danger to seafarers. And whil globalisation may have helped many, for those left behind, such as the Somali fishermen in Captain Phillips, poverty can lead to desperate measures.
One of Greengrass’ many strengths is that he understands there are two sides to every story; a trait he honed as first a journalist and then a documentary filmmaker. It’s this skill, assisted by Barry Ackroyd’s visceral cinematography and Billy Ray’s largely excellent script (based on the book A Captain’s Duty by Richard ‘Captain’ Phillips), that sets this absorbing film apart from the likes of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down.
Merchant Marine Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) is tasked with getting American container vessel Maersk Alabama from Yemen to Mombasa through the Horn of Africa, a stretch of water synonymous with piracy. Not long into their voyage the Alabama is targeted by a band of Somali bandits, led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who manage to get aboard and take command of the boat by force. As Greengrass turns the screw ever tighter, it becomes clear both Phillips and Muse are way out of their depth and at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
Structurally, Captain Phillips bears a close similarity to Greengrass’ remarkable 9/11 film United 93 - both concern a real life hijacking that takes on geopolitical ramifications and ratchet up a claustrophobic dread. He has that rare ability to wring every last drop of tension and drama from a script and here revels in locking the door behind you, throwing away the key and watching your anxiety build.
Although from very different parts of the world, Phillips and Muse are not so different really. Both are doing what they can to make ends meet and find themselves embroiled in a “real world situation” they soon cannot escape from. Greengrass is at pains not to paint the hijackers as ‘villains’. Muse and his men are only doing what they’re doing to satisfy the demands of a local warlord; they know it’s foolhardy and potentially deadly, but desperation has forced their hand.
This reaches home most poignantly when, challenged by Phillips that “there’s gotta be something other than kidnapping people”, a fateful Muse responds resignedly: “Maybe in America.”
Captain Phillips isn’t perfect; the drop in pace in the middle section feels more pronounced following the heart-stopping opening act, while Muse’s makeshift band of pirates are a little too stereotypical (the ultra-agressive one, the naive youngster). But it’s by spending time getting to know these men that gives the final act its dramatic and emotive weight. To that end, the film resembles the little-seen Brazilian documentary Bus 174, which tells the tragic story of a bungled robbery that turns into a hostage crisis.
Abdi, in his film debut, gives an astonishing performance, at turns frightening, frightened and all-too-human. His first encounter with Phillips is brilliantly acted and chilling to watch (no doubt given a greater impact by the fact Greengrass kept Abdi and Hanks apart until the day the scene was filmed). But despite holding all the cards at that moment, when Muse says “I’m the captain now”, you’re unsure who he’s trying to convince more, Phillips or himself.
In what could well be the performance of his career, Hanks is superb. Hanks is this generation’s James Stewart, an everyman who’s just as at home playing an all-American astronaut in Apollo 13 or a mob enforcer in Road To Perdition. Phillips feels like the role he was born to play and allows Hanks to stretch himself to breaking point, most notably when Phillips does indeed break down in what is undoubtedly one of the scenes of the year.
Captain Phillips lands so many gut punches you’ll be left an exhausted, staggering mess come the end of a mesmerising masterclass in white-knuckle filmmaking.