Few directors have captured the trauma of violent conflict as powerfully and realistically as Paul Greengrass has with films like United 93, Bloody Sunday and his contributions to the Jason Bourne saga. His latest film Captain Phillips is no different. This superbly made maritime thriller, which sees heavily-armed Somali pirates take over an American cargo ship, has all the white knuckle tension of United 93 as well as the kinetic energy of the Bourne films. Captain Phillips is the second film this year involving the hijacking of a ship by Somali pirates but this is a much more nerve-jangling experience than Danish film A Hijacking.
Captain Phillips is based on the true story of cargo ship captain Richard Phillips (played here by Tom Hanks) whose ship the Alabama Maersk was boarded by four Somali pirates while sailing past the horn of Africa in 2009. The pirates hoped to use the ship and its crew to extort millions from the shipping company but when their plans went awry they abducted Phillips and headed for the Somali coast in a life boat.
With his typical sweaty-palmed direction Greengrass creates both a thrilling chase film and an intense personal drama. He ratchets up the tension to the point where the audience feel like they’re being throttled. As well as his depiction of the violent abduction and threats of US military retaliation, Greengrass wrings tension from the fierce confrontations between the pirates and their captors and between the pirates themselves. Also, as Ridley Scott did in Alien, Greengrass cleverly uses the ship’s physical space with its oppressively narrow corridors and intimidating dark catacombs to increase the sense of menace. Henry Jackman’s powerful score also adds to the film’s nail-biting tension.
Tom Hanks once again succeeds in creating a decent, believable and sympathetic everyman; his Phillips is a convincing mix of stern professionalism and touching vulnerability. The revelation, though, is young Somali actor Barkhad Abdi in his screen debut, as pirate leader Muse. Abdi is remarkable as he conjures in Muse a volatile and genuinely threatening character but not a one-dimensional monster. Muse shows shreds of sympathy for his captives and impressive intellect but also saddening optimism and naiveté. Thankfully, his pirate cohorts are not an amorphous group of villains but distinct personalities who elicit varying degrees of fear, contempt and empathy.
The film doesn’t go into great detail about the economics of the third world and piracy but does convey the desperation of Somalian village men who become pirates as well as the callousness of the war-lords who press-gang the villagers into criminal service.
At 134 minutes, this film is a little long and Greengrass’ use of extreme close-ups and wobble-cam (which, admittedly, has been designed to convey the confinement and turbulence aboard the lifeboat) become draining. Still, for the most part Captain Phillips is a startlingly realistic, gritty and powerful piece of film making.
Nick’s rating: Four stars.
Director(s): Paul Greengrass.
Release date: 24th Oct 2013
Running time: 134 mins.
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