By Simon Miraudo
October 22, 2013
Chaos reigns in many of Paul Greengrass' films, from the harrowing September 11 thriller United 93 to his written-on-the-fly Bourne sequels. Captain Phillips carries over the handheld camera-work and forever-increasing tension of those features, but chaos is not quite the right word to describe its contents. Based on the real-life trials of merchant marine Richard Phillips, taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009, the movie reveals how strict adherence to procedure ultimately saved his life and those of his crew. Reminders of regulation and gentlemen's' agreements permeate proceedings, even as guns are drawn to heads and knives are held to throats. As Walter Sobchak would remind us, the ocean - like bowling - has rules.
The burden of the captain - played by an unfortunately-Boston-accented Tom Hanks - to protect those under his charge is mirrored by his kidnapper, Muse (former limo driver Barkhad Abdi), whose own underlings begin to lose faith in the mission as the Navy closes in on them. The terrorists in United 93 were a faceless evil; the quartet of Somalis here are clearly drawn and, boldly, sympathetic. The solemn duty of leading men - either across dangerous terrain, or into battle - weighs heavily on both Phillips and Muse. This antagonistic yet somehow respectuful relationship between the two skippers gives Captain Phillips its twist: we knew to expect a white-knuckle cinematic experience from this director, but not such a uniquely challenging relationship drama too.
I'll try to avoid plot specifics here, though any flick based on true events should surely be exempt from spoiler warnings. (I suspect, however, those iron-willed watchmen at Existimatum - where the reviewers become the reviewed - give little leeway for those who dare to recite historical events. Curse their intractable hides!) Mercifully, Captain Phillips does not allow for a traditional plot synopsis, nor would it be served particularly well by it. Besides a brief opening sequence in which Richard is driven to the airport by his wife (a barely glimpsed Catherine Keener), we see little of the world beyond his captive ship over the picture's runtime.
We do get to glimpse Muse in Somalia, where he's charged by the local warlord to round up a crew and hijack a boat. At home, he's disrespected and softly-spoken; when he boards Phillips' Maersk Alabama, he exudes confidence, declaring, "I'm the captain now." Similarly, the matter-of-fact Phillips begins to feign buffoonery under their arrest. When Muse and his co-conspirators drag the captain onto a lifeboat and make a break from the Maersk, the close quarters force the two captains to slowly reveal their true natures. As Phillips learns of impending Navy interference - and knowing how swift and brutal their retrieval operations can be - he begs his captors to release him and save themselves. Don't they know there is more to life than having to choose between piracy and death? "Maybe in America," Muse laments. Greengrass' political commentary - suffocating in some of his other efforts - is nicely understated in Captain Phillips, and adds shade to its complicated characters. We can probably credit this to screenwriter Billy Ray, who achieved similar miracles in Breach.
The untrained Abdi is terrifically compelling here, driving much of the action and learning - inadvertently, from his prisoner - how to be a leader. Hanks finds himself in a much more reactive role; speaking only at the most opportune moments, not wasting his words, and maintaining civility with men armed and eager to kill him. As the threat of death nears, he goes to a more primal place than I think I've ever seen him before; howling in terror and moaning in shock, after two hours of restraint and composure. This is Hanks at his best; a powerful reminder - after a decade of unremarkable works - he is a fine movie star indeed.
Captain Phillips was mostly shot (by DOP Barry Ackroyd) on the open water; a typically nutty and dangerous tact for Greengrass to take. The budget for anti-nausea medication must have been through the roof. It wasn't all for naught. The action sequences have an urgency and immediacy unique to Greengrass' works. Even if the specifics have been condensed by Ray, and even though the real-life crew claim Phillips was less the hero than the movie implies, Captain Phillips certainly feels like it really happened. In fact, it feels like it's really happening; literally unfolding in real-time before us. The nearest Hollywood comparison, Battleship, was, err, less convincing.
Captain Phillips arrives in Australian cinemas October 24, 2013.