Review – Captain Phillips

Jack Sparrow is thankfully nowhere to be seen in this buttock-clenching high seas hijack thriller from shaky-cam supremo Paul Greengrass.

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.

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.

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.

Pirates make their move on the American container vessel commanded by Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks)

Pirates make their move on the American container vessel commanded by Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks)

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.

The pirates in search of loot in Captain Phillips

The pirates in search of loot in Captain Phillips

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.

"I'm the captain now..." - Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is confronted by Somali fisherman turned pirate Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) in Captain Phillips

“I’m the captain now…” – Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is confronted by Somali fisherman turned pirate Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) in Captain Phillips

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.Ā  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.

The lifeboat that sets up the film's second half in Captain Phillips

The lifeboat that sets up the film’s second half in Captain Phillips

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.”

Desperate times for Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) in Captain Phillips

Desperate times for Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) in Captain Phillips

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.

The screw turns ever tighter in Captain Phillips

The screw turns ever tighter in Captain Phillips

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.

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23 comments

  1. jjames36 · October 19, 2013

    Well said. I completely agree with every point!

  2. CMrok93 · October 19, 2013

    One of the best of the year for many reasons, but mainly because it features Hanks’ best performance in a long while. Good review.

  3. Tom · October 20, 2013

    Great review Mark, truly stunning work from Green grass, Abdi and Hanks. I could barely handle all the tension myself, but was glad for the experience — and boy, what a conclusion!!!

    • Three Rows Back · October 20, 2013

      Muchos gracias Tom. Yeah that final act absolutely had me on the edge of my seat. A tour de force by Greengrass and co.

  4. Chris · October 20, 2013

    I’m loving the Jack Sparrow jabs that this movie is bringing! XD

    Good review, and I’m right there with you. Really enjoyed this movie, and thought the performances were pretty stellar, Hanks especially, though newcomer Abdi certainly impressed as well. šŸ™‚

    • Three Rows Back · October 20, 2013

      Thanks buddy. I hadn’t realised Sparrow was getting a pasting elsewhere. Oh well, I’m not very original am I!

  5. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · October 20, 2013

    Great stuff Mark. Hopefully checking this out this week and really looking forward to it. There haven’t been many films this year that have really had me gripping my seat, so I hope this fills that void.

    • Three Rows Back · October 20, 2013

      Cheers Chris. I’ll stick my neck out and say you’ll have a great time with this. Looking forward to your thoughts mate.

  6. Mark Walker · October 21, 2013

    Excellent review Mark. I’m looking forward to this one.

  7. ckckred · October 21, 2013

    Nice review. Still have to check this out.

  8. Gene · October 21, 2013

    Wow, quite a statement that this may be Hanks’ best film, look forward to seeing it. Thanks for the review!

  9. Naomi · October 24, 2013

    My eyes actually got a bit watery reading this, reliving some scenes in my head ;p Just saw this film yesterday and what a ride! I was a bit skeptical at first, with the similarity of its premise with A Hijacking’s (Kapringen). But it turns out to be a totally different film! I agree with you that its pacing sort of fell off in some parts, especially during the last third, but nevertheless it’s still a great film, both Hanks and Abdi gave truly amazing performances.

    • Three Rows Back · October 27, 2013

      It’s nice to generate such a reaction from one of my reviews! It’s really good isn’t it? A proper rollercoaster. Not seen A Hijacking yet, but hear it’s a great film too.

  10. thomasjford · October 24, 2013

    This film looks really good, I look forward to seeing it, especially after your great review. Well done dude!

    • Three Rows Back · October 27, 2013

      Cheers man, much appreciated. Let me know your thoughts šŸ™‚

  11. Movie Review World · November 5, 2013

    Great review. I think you’ve pretty much said it all right there. Despite the few lazy stereotypes and the dip in pace in the second act I have to say, I found it one of the finest films of the year thus far. Drop by Movie Review World if you get time.

    • Three Rows Back · November 5, 2013

      Cheers buddy. Glad you agree. Read your review, but it wouldn’t let me leave any feedback for some reason. Fine job on your review mate, very interesting read.

      • Movie Review World · November 5, 2013

        Thanks buddy, It wouldnt allow you to leave a comment…? Strange, I’ll look into it. Thanks again

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