Based on a true story, Captain Phillips tells the story of a 2009 hijacking of the US cargo vessel, the MV Maersk Alabama. Tom Hanks plays the title character, captain of the ship, who finds himself having to defend his cargo from hijacking, the first such attempt on a US vessel in 200 years.
Captain Phillips opened the BFI London Film festival last week and, since the film is based on true events, it would be easy to speculate as to the story’s outcome. Paul Greengrass has taken a story that was widely covered in national and international news, but managed to make a familiar story thrilling.
Tom Hanks, as Captain Richard Phillips, gives his best performance in a long time – other than this year’s Cloud Atlas. Hanks plays Phillips as an experienced and quick thinking man, who is all too aware that he and his crew did not sign up for military or defensive action. Hanks wins audience sympathy early on, as he defends his crew and his ship, and keeps it as he is revealed to be an average man in an exceptional in an impossible situation. The film depends on Hanks, and his interaction with the pirates, for it to work and the actor does a marvellous job of playing a man who has enough to lose to be emotional, but smart enough to know that emotion will most likely get him killed. Hanks is magnetic on screen, and
On the other side of the conflict is pirate Muse, nicknamed ‘Skinny’ by his crew. Played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, Muse feels like a truly dangerous opponent, and one who does not have the respect and love from his crew that Phillips does. Abdi plays Muse like a caged animal; prowling and ready to strike at any moment. As well as this, the first time actor holds his own on screen against Hanks, and it is the combination of their performances, as the two play cat and mouse through the film, that makes it work so well.
Screenwriter Billy Ray has brought us some of the best thrillers of recent years, including State of Play, Shattered Glass and The Hunger Games (Yes, it’s a thriller, of sorts), and he delivers again with Captain Phillips. We get to know both American and Somali as the film goes on, and even the pirates – who could have been thinly drawn and interchangeable – are well rounded and given true motivation.
Greengrass ramps up the tension early on in the film, and keeps it high throughout. The entire situation balances on a knife-edge for much of the film; shaky cinematography and constantly shifting power only serve to underline this. Greengrass balances the human and emotional tension with the sheer scale of the story – who would think that a small fishing vessel could overpower a freighter? The film never wanders into sentimental territory; we know just enough about Muse and Phillips to make use care about them, the rest hinges on the haunted and sensitive performances at the centre of the film. The only complaint could be that, at 134 minutes, the film is a little over long, and does feel like it is dragging its heels at times.
Captain Phillips takes elements from three movie styles – thriller, war movie and hostage drama – and blends them together effortlessly. Hanks has not been this good in a long time – in particular in his final scene – and newcomer Barkhad Abdi is a powerful screen partner for the Hollywood veteran. Paul Greengrass treats the story with sensitivity and tact, while revealing enough information that we care about the characters without being over dramatic. The sheer scale of the film and the technical strength are carefully balanced with the human drama, to nerve wracking effect.