Film Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips’ director Paul Greengrass has experience in adapting intense real-life events into biopics on-screen. Some of his previous work with Green Zone and United 93 specifically showcase that has a knack of turning these situations into taut films and Captain Phillips is definitely the best of the bunch. Greengrass is a master of slow building tension and with Henry Jackman’s fantastic score, I was on the edge of my seat for pretty much the full 2 hours+ running time.

The film itself is about some Somalian Pirates hijacking a cargo ship sailing down their coastline, then taking the eponymous Captain hostage on one of the lifeboats before attempting to negotiate a ransom. Tom Hanks plays Phillips and there was an extensive casting call for the roles of the 4 Pirates, given that Somalia is not renowned in Hollywood for its actors.

The film kicks off and gets into the action fairly quickly. The initial sense of dread begins as you first see the Pirate’s ship on the tankers sonar, and increases as we watch the crew trying to outrun the boat, avoiding capture. This seemingly insignificant tiny ship carrying the 4 men then comes back and pulls up alongside the huge cargo ship carrying 17,000 Metric tons. It’s almost laughable when you compare the two boat sizes but the crew are helpless to stop them given their weaponry and they seize the ship.

In truth there have also been several other attempts at piracy and high-jacking of the very same boat since, but Greengrass’ film focuses solely on the first and only successful attempt in April 2009.

Hanks is superb, and should definitely garner an Oscar nomination for his acting in the last 10 minutes alone. The way he displays his characters level-headedness in the face of adversity and then subsequent coolness under the pressure of being locked in a confined space for a couple of days, is brilliant. I can’t think of anyone that would have played the role any better.

Barkhad Abdi as the lead Pirate, Muse is equally outstanding, as he slowly develops from dangerous leader to scared and confused with nowhere else to go once the kidnapping escalates beyond his control so rapidly. His performance is so layered, that we can tell he is out of his depth before he even embarks on the mission, and we end up actually feeling sorry for his character.

There is one glaringly obvious plot hole that needs to be addressed, but given that these are factual events, it would be churlish to blame this on Greengrass’ filmmaking. Why were there no guns on-board? Phillips even says after the pirates first and failed attack that “you know what you signed up for going down the Somali coast” when someone says that they aren’t prepared to fight the pirates. Surely given this criminal hotspot they would be equipped or at least prepared for a potential attack with more than just some hoses?

Speaking of which, since seeing the film I’ve read that in reality Phillips was reckless and it was his own terrible judgement that got the tanker into trouble in the first place. In fact most of the captured crew have tried to sew the freight company for his actions as well. This certainly changes my opinion unfavourably of Phillips as a person, but this definitely does not detract from Hanks’ performance of the fictionalised version of Phillips, or the film itself, which is definitely one of the picks of the year.


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