Paul Greengrass is never a director to shy away from defining stories from recent American history. This was a man who tried to tell the story of the flight that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on the day of the Twin Towers attack in 2001. So it is not a surprise that he would be the man to helm the movie based on the 2009 Somalian pirate hijacking of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama.
The first thing you kind of notice about the film is how basic it starts off. Of course, you are introduced to Phillips (Tom Hanks), driving to the airport with his wife to head off to Africa to make the long trip up the coast. On the other side, many of the poorest in Somalia are struggling to get the food needed for the leaders to justify feeding the people with, with bigger companies coming in and taking the water produce for their own needs. Thus the reason why men risk their lives on trying to capture boats to sell for money for their leaders and to be able to support their own families.
The film really kicks into high gear, as you would expect, when the pirates get on board, led by Muse, played to perfection by debutee Barkhad Abdi. All the young Somalian actors who make the main collection of pirates give great performances which could have easily been ‘generic not American bad guy’ but there is real meat to their performances and all take the pressure of this being their first big motion picture in their stride.
The film tries to humanise the pirates, albeit not developed as much as it should have, to make the reliance on hijacking boats needed for the sake of making money for their leaders. It works in a way, as it gives both sides a stake and makes the story less leaning against one side but it is not quite developed enough. The fault may lie more in what was provided from the agencies involved and Phillips’ own accounts but it kind of leaves a bit more to be desired in that front.
There comes a point where Greengrass intentionally makes the film more enclosed and claustrophobic and this is really the film’s strength. You feel secluded watching the pirates and Hanks travel towards Somalia on a lifeboat coping with heat and lack of sunlight with resources dwindling. It builds the tension for when everything is going to explode and go badly wrong and it is superb to watch.
The finale of the movie leads to one of the most powerful single moments in Hanks’ career and one that will define the inevitable Oscar talk that will come from doing a project like this. But the moment should not be overshadowed by awards speculation as it is the single defining moment of the Captain Phillips character and one that will stick in the heads of audience long after they have come out of the cinema.
With recent interviews with crew members talking about how the film is a lie, it hinders how true the actual film is to real life. On that end, it’s a story that will run for a good while yet. On the film end, it’s a very well put together film. Greengrass does his job, getting the most out of scenes and the actors in them and everything else is clean and builds the tension to degrees it should with a story such as this. It’s satisfying overall, even if it does take a time to ramp itself up.
Captain Phillips is out now.