Captain Phillips

Based on the 2009 incident in which a US tanker was captured by a handful of Somali pirates, Captain Phillips is a story tailor made for film and fulfils that potential thanks to sharp direction from Paul Greengrass and two very strong performances at its core. There have been suggestions that the Captain is made out to be more heroic than he really was and that is was his ignoring of the pirate threat that led the ship into a dangerous area. Phillips himself has said the ordeal was even worse than depicted in the film. However the acts displayed here are far removed from the triumphant heroics you see in many moves nowadays as the ending makes clear and the resulting film, even if it is not totally accurate, is a very well assembled nail biting thriller that will take you beyond the edge of your seat!

In 2009 the US cargo tanker Mearsk Alabama carrying mostly food supplies became the target of a comparatively small group of Somali pirates whose intention was to ransom the vessel for millions. Things soon go awry for both sides. The ship‘s carefully prepared anti-pirate measures prove woefully ineffectual once the intruders are on board. The pirates themselves initially fail in their efforts and it’s only after one of their number- Abduwali Muse- takes over that their operation becomes wilier. Thus we are drawn into a battle of wits between two leaders, each able to recognise the qualities of the other, each prone to make more considered, intelligent judgements than their subordinates. The pirates are prone to bicker amongst themselves over seniority and tactics while Phillips’ men lack his sharp sense of danger and seem less prepared than they should be given that the ship is sailing down the east coast of Africa. Ultimately neither man is in control as outside scenarios threaten to overwhelm them.

Thus the film scores because it portrays both sides of the situation equally. You will never feel sympathetic with the pirates but the justification Muse offers for their behaviour does ring true and you can see their logic. There is a laudable attempt to place their life in context partly as a result of what richer countries have done so they are always more than simply cartoon villains. Meanwhile Phillips is no unbelievable Die Hard style hero, instead doing realistically human things to protect his crew.

Anchoring the film with a more abrasive character than he is often asked to play Tom Hanks gives one of the performance of his career. There is no show boating, no over dramatics, just a dedicated, inventive and ultimately weary man doing his best. It’s hard to think of any actor who could deliver this as well as Hanks does. Yet he is matched by a mesmerising performance from Barkhad Abdi as Muse in what is remarkably his film debut. Gaunt to the point of looking unhealthy, he gives the character an intelligence and even a little mystery. Locked against each other in the initial scenes after the pirates have boarded and later, trapped in the lifeboat in which they escape with Phillips as a hostage both actors are riveting. 

The film moves quickly despite a running time of two and a quarter hours and Greengrass manages to raise the tension with each development particularly near the end when it is racheted up to an almost unbearable level. The familiarity we now have with both Phillips and Muse means we feel personally invested in the outcome. While there are increasingly cuts away to the military as they attempt a rescue especially towards the end matters remains focussed on board first the tanker and then the lifeboat and results in one of the year’s most involving films.

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