Paul Greengrass (United 93) brings to the screen an incredible, terrifying film based on a true story. For many people, Somali pirate hijackings are something that we only hear about on the news, but for the ships involved it is all too real. In 2009, Richard Phillips, captain of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama, was taken hostage. Captain Phillips is the story Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray have brought to us.
Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew are delivering cargo from Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. To do so, they must sail past the coast of Somalia, where warnings of pirate activity have been issued. Soon, the Alabama is intercepted by two skiffs, which Phillips correctly assumes are carrying Somali pirates. Their ship is eventually boarded by a group of four pirates, led by a man called Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Demanding ransom, Muse and his men take Phillips (who they begin calling ‘Irish’ after he tells them he’s American-Irish) hostage, and the situation soon escalates even further, because the US Navy is on the way…
The build up of suspense is almost imperceptible, but constant. Short, but harsh bursts of activity keep the anxiety levels high. I was sitting bolt upright in my seat a lot of the time. The danger rises as the desperation of the pirates grows. Greengrass, known for his handheld, shaky-cam style, uses said technique to great effect. It keeps you on edge, without being over the top. The production design and use of space is marvellous – the lifeboat scenes are claustrophobic, and in the engine room scenes there is the perfect sense of humid heat and a looming feeling of dread. Combined with the score, the entire film is one high stakes, stress-inducing thriller.
What is really incredible though, is how much more complex this film is than the usual good guy vs. bad guy drama. Back-story for both main characters, Phillips and Muse, is explained early on in a quick and efficient manner (so there is nothing to distract from or slow down the main story). We know Phillips has a family, and we know what is at stake for Muse if he fails in getting a good ransom. The pirates, who could have so easily been demonized, are shown in a very human way. They are scary, of course; they represent a major threat to Phillips and his crew. One man in particular is filled with such an uncontrollable rage, that his outbursts of anger are shocking enough to make you jump in your seat. But these men are clearly driven by circumstances and necessity that leave them little choice – ‘bosses’ that are never seen, but whose presence is heavily felt. Muse is not proud of his actions, and Barkhad Abdi is able to portray this in a nuanced, gripping performance. Nothing sums up his motivations better, or more succinctly, than this simple exchange with Phillips:
Phillips:” There’s gotta be something other than being fishermen, and kidnapping people?”
Muse: “Maybe in America, Irish…maybe in America…”
That has got to be some of the most frank, hard-hitting dialogue I’ve heard in a film this year, and Barkhad’s delivery adds such a degree of sadness. It is a very powerful moment.
The interaction and interplay between Barkhad and Hanks makes this an incredible film. Tom Hanks gives a strong, committed performance throughout, but it was the ending, and his final scenes, which really cemented it for me as one of the best performances of this year. Whether or not it is an accurate portrayal of the real Phillips (there has been some contention around that point), the character that Hanks brings to life is stoic, intelligent, and commands respect. His reaction to the situation is both admirable, and naturalistic. The pressure Phillips is under just builds and builds, and is finally released in a huge wave of emotion that really got to me. This moment of release almost allows the audience to let go as well. The ending, rather than bringing about a feeling of joy, carries the feeling of a hollow victory, and is melancholy and reflective. We are reminded that the issues and the root problems that make people like Muse take up piracy haven’t been resolved, and these problems will continue until they have been addressed.
Thoughtful, tense, superbly filmed and acted – Captain Phillips is not one to be missed.