What can be said about Captain Phillips? Well, for a start, it’s directed by Paul Greengrass; the man behind gut-punch 9/11 docu-drama United 93. It stars every man’s favourite every man, Tom Hanks, and it is based on a true story. One so high profile, I’d wager that 90% of those who watch the film will already know the ending. So how on Earth, even with such widely chronicled details of the event, does Captain Phillips manage to remain so bloody tense and stressful until the final credits!?
For the uninitiated, in 2009 four Somali pirates boarded a container ship heading south around the horn of Africa to Mombasa. After a botched heist, they took the captain, Richard Phillips, hostage and headed back to the Somali coastline. The captain spent four days cooped up in an escape craft with four very edgy and volatile bandits, until…. well, you know the rest.
Now if that’s not a recipe for Hollywood, I don’t know what is. So no surprises to see this adapted into film, then.
The trick with Captain Phillips though, is not its slavish adherence in retelling a story, but rather its paradoxical respect for the truth of things. Greengrass, a notorious realist, treats the most mundane of details with great eye. Taking time to show Phillips plodding around the MV Maersk Alabama, ironically noting a loose anti-pirate cage, Greengrass makes us feel the genuine; turning our minds to the ‘how’ of this world, rather than the ‘why’ or ‘when’. Much as he did with the Bourne films, or United 93 or even Green Zone, the director is keen to spend time building a three-dimensional world – one not so different from our own. This time, we don’t get a 101 on evading hitmen, or ‘pushing tin’ or even storming Al Quieda safe houses. This time, we learn how to steer 17k tonne container ships, and how to use water cannons to repel oncoming pirates. This weighty credibility is soon played with, however, as the usual Greengrass tricks come out and we begin to see tension in the unlikeliest of places.
The ‘fiction’ of Captain Phillips comes blurred and masked as genuine articles. Moments such as the fridge scene or final showdown feel hokey and played for suspense. Yet somehow, they sit well within the creation Greengrass presents. There is no strain in the moments of the conventional when Greengrass is at work. We sense enough respect for the source material to see that when Captain Phillips is at its most artificial, it is in fact at its most candid, emotionally. If we as viewers are honest, there is not much ‘entertainment’ value in knowing that Philiips is just a dollar sign to pirate Muse and his crew. The threat is immediately diminished when we know Philips will be safe for a few million Benjamins. But when Greengrass chooses to amp up the risk factor (everyone is high of Khat, temperatures are rising, injuries abound, Bilal is a psycho), suddenly there is something to invest in Phillips’ situation. It is for this reason that one could suggest Captain Phillips is an augmented reality, one resting on the line between hyper-real and stranger than fiction.
Tom Hanks plays it safe at times, giving Richard Phillips a likeability and Yoda-like calm that is almost impossible to comprehend. Yet beneath this smooth exterior lies someone who is actually a bit of a douche. At times we see a Captain Phillips who is calculated, always watching, monitoring his staff and then his captors, a man who puts work over the welfare of his own men. It’s these glimpses of a more unusual role for Hanks, which serves to illuminate quite a refreshing performance. There are the quintessential shouty moments, and the inevitable epilogue breakdown. But these are so well acted, that it is really quite impossible not to wish another Oscar on the man. Newcomers Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdiraham, Faysail Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali (all the usual spellings) prove once again that even under the most unturned of stones still lay the rarest of gems. Like Pierce Gagon (Looper), Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), and R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket), these four Somali actors break out of obscurity with such might, it is almost impossible to se how that they will ever top it again. A pessimistic view, I know, but will we ever see Abdi as anything other than (to quote the man himself) “just a fisherman”? It is a stigma that will be hard to overcome.
Captain Phillips is a film that starts quick, moves strong and ends with a jolt. It is the kind of experience that is likely to encourage frustration, anxiety and finally, the sort of gasp for air that one gets after rising from a deep dive below the waves. Oddly, the journey feels tryingly clunky and slow, yet before you realise it; blood is spilt and lives are altered forever. If Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray intended on tricking us into enjoying Captain Phillips more in hindsight than in practice, then they have inadvertently created one of the most gruellingly wonderful films of 2013.