A big cloud hangs over Captain Phillips. The plot is based on a true story about a group of Somali pirates who attacked a cargo ship in 2009 which resulted in a hostage crisis. You know entering the cinema that something dreadful is going to happen. You brace for the worst, and the situation is dire, yet it’s an incredible dramatisation. Director Paul Greengrass has created an experience that feels like having a gun held to your head. Compelling, ruthless and morally challenging, Captain Phillips is an astonishing piece of work.
Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is commanding the ship MV Maersk Alabama through the Gulf of Aden to Mombasa, Kenya, when it’s overtaken by armed pirates led by Abulwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi).
It’s a line that’s probably going to be used a lot reflecting on Captain Phillips but it truly is a tale of two captains. Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (adapting the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty) present Phillips and Muse as two men from different backgrounds whose livelihood is at sea. Rather than focus on extensive backstories for each character, Greengrass and Ray introduce them at the inception of the job that will sync their destinies. Phillips is seen leaving home to accept a shipping gig and Muse is recruited on a beach where armed warlords wave men onto boats promising riches and demanding results. Instantly these men are defined by their actions within the bounds of the incident that unfolds. There are no flashbacks or calls from home. Greengrass and Ray keep a tight focus on the incident and the way each character handles the situation.
Conversations highlight the reasoning behind Muse’s life of piracy and the desperation to seek a better life when all avenues of employment have been obliterated. The example continually referenced is that the pirates are actually fisherman who can no longer make a living off the ocean as large corporate trawlers have rendered them obsolete. Phillips pleads with Muse using the reasoning of someone accustomed to a middle-class American lifestyle, and although they share the commonality of leadership, the divide between two socioeconomic backgrounds is large. These moments are laced throughout and elevate Captain Phillips above simply re-enacting the ordeal. Ray’s screenplay balances the empathy for both Phillips and Muse in a subtle yet impactful way. Phillips is the obvious victim but Muse is the casualty of a much larger crime syndicate.
Greengrass masterfully handles the suspense and there is an unnerving way he constantly tightens to noose on the story. The film moves from chaotic boat chase sequences on the open seas, to intense negotiations within confined spaces; it’s completely nerve racking. Once the United States Navy enters the frame, a series of deadlines are established for verbal negotiations to finish and lethal force to be engaged. Within the bounds of these timeframes you feel the moral weight of the situation bear down and Greengrass doesn’t indulge in American patriotism. Instead, there is a very clinical way in which the military operates which is exactly what you’d expect from people trained to kill. Internally I agonised over the right course of action and the value of a human life within the context of the decision making process of faceless people on radios and telephones. At times it seems like a ‘lose-lose’ situation and I contemplated the monsters we must become to survive these extreme conditions.
Complementing the action beautifully is the score by Henry Jackman that injects a hefty amount of adrenaline into each sequence. The music grinds with the mechanical sounds of ocean vessels and pounds with African drums to reflect the region. You can hear the worlds of Phillips and Muse collide in Jackman's orchestrations.
Throughout the ordeal Hanks spends a lot of time enhancing the intensity of the situation by projecting complete fear. Hanks is always silently stewing, strained yet composed staring down the barrel of a gun with his eyes conveying pure terror. You can feel the pressure building on the character and Hanks explodes in an astounding outpouring of emotion toward the finale that is sure to leave mouths agape and eyes misty. Abdi is riveting and you can sense every inch of his character’s struggle. Muse is worn out, emphasised by his gaunt appearance, but an intellect burns behind the weary exterior. Abdi allows Muse to free fall into darkness and there is an intimidating shift in his eyes as the character embraces his status as an outlaw.
Captain Phillips has all the grit of Zero Dark Thirty and the astonishing feat of the mission in Argo. It’s career defining work from Greengrass and a remarkable achievement.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies