Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

(M) Sony DVD/BD & Digital Download

In 2009, international headlines were made when Richard Phillips, the captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, was taken hostage by Somali pirates for four days before being rescued by the US Navy and now Paul Greengrass has brought the story to the screen in the impressive Captain Phillips.

While we have all heard about Somali pirates, the notion of seafaring pirates seems so old-fashioned that it is, for the uninitiated, difficult to fathom how the practice still takes place. Part of what makes Captain Phillips so interesting is the procedural nature of the film. Almost a docu-drama, the film shows us how high seas piracy functions in the modern world. We see not only how a small group of pirates can take possession of a massive container ship, but also the processes the container ships go through in the face of a pirate threat. But don’t let Greengrass’ devotion to detail and process fool you into thinking this film is in any way bland. Captain Phillips is intense, gripping storytelling.

Emotionally, the film is carried by a stunning performance from Tom Hanks. A veteran seaman, Phillips is a cool head under pressure and a quick thinker. He is a schemer. The brilliance of Hanks’ performance is that so much of it is about what the character is thinking. The film’s final scenes, in which Phillips, who has to this point been so measured, is simply unable to process the incredible ordeal he has just been through,  are devastatingly effecting and some of the best screen acting you will ever see. Hanks’ performance is complemented by some equally strong work from the supporting cast, most notably the four first time actors who deliver impressively nuanced performances as the Somali pirates.

One of the great strengths of Captain Phillips is the way that it chooses to humanise the Somali characters when it so easily could have presented them as a terrifying other. Greengrass breaks from Phillips’ point of view by subtitling the Somali characters, so that unlike Phillips we can always understand what they are saying. In doing so he gives us access to those characters. Instead of one collection of bad guys we see four distinctly different men, displaying different emotions and reacting to the experience, and to the figure of Phillips, in individual ways. The humanising of the Somali pirates is helped by the fact that despite being the villains of the film, they are also consistently the underdogs, and as an audience there is something in us which is compelled to sympathise with the underdog.

It is always impressive when a film based on high profile actual events, and therefore with a known resolution, manages to create and maintain legitimate dramatic tension. With Captain Phillips, Greengrass goes further than simply maintaining dramatic tension, delivering an intense, gripping and interesting film.

Duncan McLean

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