Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

Telling the true life tale of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, Paul Greengrass’s latest sees Tom Hanks as the eponymous Captain Phillips.

Telling the true life tale of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, Paul Greengrass’s latest sees Tom Hanks as the eponymous Captain Phillips, a man taken hostage by Somali pirates after their failed attempt to take over his ship. What follows is an extraordinary game of cat and mouse between his captors and the US navy told through Greengrass’s trademark docu-drama lens.

Before going into Captain Phillips, the viewer must put aside all pre-conceived ideas of historical accuracy or the truth behind the film. In the wake of its release, Captain Phillips has proven controversial due to its perceived liberties with actual events, with the Maersk Alabama’s crew speaking out against the film’s portrayal of their captain, a man they regard as hot-headed, reckless and, ultimately, responsible for the ship and cargo being in pirate infested waters to begin with. It’s easy to get lost amongst the “he said/they said” and it’s inevitable that such pettifogging would arise, however to focus on this rhetoric detracts from what Greengrass and co have achieved here.

With its emphasis on docu-drama realism, social commentary and its basis on a true story, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking you were watching a sequel to United 93. In fact, it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to consider Captain Phillips as a spiritual successor to the 9/11 masterpiece, such is the nature of Greengrass’s handling of the subject. Much to the director’s credit, he is able to dispel any grumblings of typical Hollywood heroism by portraying the captain not as the archetypal hero but rather a man thrust into an impossibly dire situation, his being taken hostage the result of a double cross on the part of his kidnappers rather than a selfless act of sacrifice. It is a similar move made in the portrayal of the passengers of the doomed Flight 93: these people aren’t heroes; they’re ordinary citizens just trying to survive.

Mention must be made to the performances, all of which are terrific. It would be surprising if Hanks is not nominated as, despite his obvious star credentials, he portrays Phillips as the flawed everyman, a ball-buster of a boss (he seldom commands respect from his crew) who takes charge purely because, well, he is the captain. Again, there is no heroism portrayed or even a sense of duty, just a man bullied into a Catch 22 with gun-toting pirates. The fact that said pirates are played by unprofessional actors is even more extraordinary as all hold their own against Hanks. Special mention to Barkhad Abdi as pirate captain Abduwali Muse, who is both intimidating and oddly human. It could be argued that the pirates are, themselves, the victims of their own Catch 22: risk life and limb stealing on the ocean or face certain death upon failure back home. It’s an interesting parallel that is, unfortunately, minimally explored in favour of the immediacy of the chase.

The director’s dogged insistence on handheld photography is present and accounted for but only the most cynical of viewers could consider this cliché. Whilst he has been criticised in the past for exploiting shaky-cam, it’s the opinion of this reviewer that, if anything, this shooting from the hip (Greengrass is a proponent of shooting his scenes with multiple cameras filming simultaneously) allows an element of immediacy seldom found in most blockbusters. His Bourne sequels (Supremacy and Ultimatum respectively) practically ditched the slickness of Doug Liman’s original in favour of something more grounded. With Captain Phillips, it pays back in spades, and once the action shifts from the ship to the life raft, the claustrophobia reaches such uncomfortable heights that, come the final half hour, you legitimately begin to question how much more you can physically take.

It’s this final half hour, in fact, where Greengrass’s penchant for knuckle chewing tension really shines. Much like the final third of United 93, all the proceeding pressure is pushed to breaking point as the endgame nears. The conclusion is not as foregone as with United 93, and those unknowing of how true events transpired will feel genuine fear for everyone’s safety. The film’s atmosphere becomes as oppressive as the lifeboat and we feel every bit of frustration as both the Navy and the Pirates attempt to push events in their favour, with often charged results that further propels the narrative into a deeper spiral of uncertainty. Both sides are frustrated and desperate. The intensity of these moments hits heights rarely seen.

Like many a great movie, Captain Phillips is a very simple story told very, very well. The explosive potential of a real world story is told honestly through the eyes of a director who understands how to turn such a story into a white knuckle, no-holds-barred thriller without compromising the integrity of its source. It’s only when the resolution comes and all pressure is released that you take your fist breath in two hours.

A hot contender for film of the year.

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