Director: Paul Greengrass; Writers: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips, Stephan Talty (book); Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Michael Chernus, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, Catherine Keener; Running time: 134 minutes; Certification: 12A
Once more showing off his documentary roots, director Paul Greengrass has delved for the umpteenth time into true story territory and masterfully brought to the screen an incredible tale in his own visually-arresting style. Swapping the hijacked airplane of United 93 for a pirate-infested cargo ship, Captain Phillips brings us into the world of… you guessed it… Captain Richard Phillips and his crew, en-route with food supplies around the neck of Africa, when Somali pirates hijack their ship in hopes of a large ransom. Greengrass has always been a master of not only slow-building tension, but also maintaining that tension once at its peak. Again, he dials the thrills and tension right up to ten and then some, not letting up for even one second thereon as events escalate and escalate to the breathtaking climax. There’s no wonder why for the last decade he’s latched himself so firmly to the genre; his flare, pace and fluidity behind camera (admittedly sometimes with a pinch too much shakiness) lends itself perfectly to the guttural thrills and bold showdowns that come inherent with it – none of which are lost in Captain Phillips.
The strength of the film weighs heavily on Hanks’ shoulders, and it’s a virtuoso performance worthy of pretty much every award under the sun. Quite seriously, he’s never been more impressive. At the center of nearly every scene in the film, his commitment to such a physically and emotionally-demanding role is admirable, and in one particular gut-wrenching scene where Captain Phillips is shocked, delirious and unable to speak coherently, we just forget to breathe as we marvel at his skill. There must be genuine emotions going on in there because it just isn’t possible to conventionally and believably act such uncontrollable emotions. An incredible, monumental performance that surely beckons Oscar.
But let’s not forget there are also really fantastic performances from the guys who play the pirates; none of whom had ever acted before. Barkhad Abdi as the pirate captain Muse and Barkhad Abdirahman as the rambunctious Najee shine with a particularly impressive light. Interestingly, Greengrass didn’t let them meet Hanks until the hijacking sequence, so as to stop them “becoming friendly” and bring an extra level of shock and reality to the scene. Whether that made a huge difference or not is hard to say, but there is definitely a genuine air of threat permeating through the scene – and, indeed, the whole film.
Importantly this isn’t just the Tom Hanks show. While, of course, Hanks portrays the eponymous Phillips and the film is essentially about his ordeal, the pirates are an equally important part of the story and Greengrass acknowledges that. When the initial attack comes, instead of the pirates being merely inconsequential “bad guys” who happen to be providing a service to the film by hijacking the boat, we know where they’re coming from and why they’re doing it. After we’re introduced to Phillips in his idyllic suburban home in the US, we’re immediately juxtaposed images as we cut to Somalia where Muse is being roped into picking his team under duress. Giving them as much of a background as Phillips adds a whole different dimension to the film, and while we never relate to them, we understand them.
Simply put, the best thing about Captain Phillips is that it’s a just a good, solid thriller. Nothing fancy. With surprising turns and loads of pace, it pins you to your seat and whitens your knuckles right from go, and when you walk out you feel as if you’ve been through as much of an ordeal as Phillips (in a good way). Up until this point I would have cited The Call as the year’s best (yet understated) thriller, but Captain Phillips cruises past it inside the first act and never looks back. That’s not meant to be taken as a disservice to The Call as I enjoyed it very much, only Captain Phillips is at a whole new level of finger-cracking, nail-biting thrills. This is Paul Greengrass’ best film since The Bourne Supremacy. A supremely confident, uncompromisingly tense, exciting, visually arresting, palm-saturating voyage into uncharted territory.