From the first moment that we see two skiffs transporting Somali Pirates battling the open ocean and gaining on the merchant freighter they are pursuing through the binoculars of Tom Hanks’ Captain Richard Phillips the tension in Paul Greengrass' (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) astonishingly credible thriller remains relentless.
Based on an actual 2009 hijacking case and Phillips’ autobiography, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, there is genuine heart-in-mouth suspense as both sides of this terrifying open-ocean occupation – Phillips and the crew of Maersk Alabama, and the four Somali raiders – are given equal attention and admirably humanised.
First and foremost, Hanks gives an incredible performance, and this amazing story has been given a fitting dramatisation - albeit one of nerve-shredding authenticity, and predominantly free of Hollywood dramatic manipulation and U.S ‘save-the-day’ bravado – by the gifted Greengrass. He weaves a tale documenting not just that of one man’s survival under extreme pressure, but a clash of first and third world economic values and two very different, but equally desperate men who have a job to do and work for other people, yet put their lives on the line to see it done.
This is an intense experience, essential viewing in the cinema. There is immediacy and intimacy provided by the remarkable hand-held photography which is controlled enough to spatially survey the action, and present enough to capture every ounce of emotion.
I felt like I was watching these events unfold, captured in guerilla documentary form. Hanks and his supports are so genuine, the dialogue so natural, that you believe you are watching an actual crew.
There is also an incredible urgency created by the editing, which fuse the parallel planes of action to generate even more tension, and a simmering score that never swells to the point of being intrusive. The two attempts at occupying the freighter are about as tense as cinema gets and once the raiders make it aboard Greengrass maintains it through the face-off between Phillips and the gaunt-in-stature but menacing pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi, brilliant considering this is his first screen role), and Phillips' wily but risky attempts to steer the trigger-happy captors away from his crew. The film’s second half is a stifling, claustrophobic pressure-cooker for Phillips with a highly professional Naval response to the delicate situation.
We learn that these volunteer Somali mercenaries have little to live for – there aren’t enough fish left in the sea for them to earn a living as fishermen, and they are taxed highly and repressed by warlords. Muse personally selects his squad - a skilled driver, a tough enforcer with a short temper and a youngster on his first job who doesn't even have shoes - and the dyanamic between this group becomes increasingly hostile. Distrust leads to self-destruction, and Phillips’ valuable life (he is their bounty) is repeatedly threatened.
The opening sequence, an obvious weak link, features some oddly forced exposition and a heavy-handed thematic set up. As Hanks urgently tells his wife (Catherine Keener); “our kids are growing up in much different world,” he also explains that there are less opportunities in his field, high positions are becoming more competitive and the training processes are becoming tougher. I felt like this could lead into the aging, old-school Phillips to be ill equipped for the situation that follows, but it’s not to be. One of the many factors I loved about this film was that Phillips was a highly competent captain, and did everything according to protocol, with a proficiency and calm exterior. He goes beyond the call of duty to keep his crew safe, and yet the raiders are good enough to break through the freighter’s defenses and they take over the ship with orchestrated ease.
Phillips is an everyman we wholeheartedly care for. He may be a taskmaster, and come across as a little cold toward his crew, he’s the guy you want in charge. But, having been warned that piracy should be kept on high alert before setting out for their mission, their charted route through unprotected and isolated waters was a risky one. Even to repel the pirates, the Americans don’t resort to deadly weaponry, but an array of protective measures - hoses, and a combination of increased speed with sharp changes in direction – to keep them at bay. The pirates gain the upper hand through their weaponry and their outward menace; which remains a desperate guise when their plans go awry.
Tom Hanks has always been a great and versatile actor – he won back-to-back Academy Awards in 1993 and 1994 after all. After a return to form in Cloud Atlas earlier in the year, though I doubt he was ever out of form save for appearing as Robert Langdon in the adaptations of Dan Brown bestsellers, his work under Greengrass’ direction is amongst the best I have seen from him. He is completely convincing as an ordinary family man, a calculated and methodical captain, and a terrified man clinging to his diminishing sense of hope. There are many standout sequences and in the latter half viewers will leave acknowledging one in particular.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.