Do you know much about the piracy hostage attack in 2009 that involved four Somali pirates and an American captain? If you responded with ‘I’m sorry, what?’ then let director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks tell you a truly incredible story. My review of Captain Phillips after the jump.
Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a dedicated family man and an accomplished captain of cargo ships that travel all over the world. He’s a quiet, respectable and selfless. We never see him openly socialise with his crew of 20 nor do we even see him laugh or smile, unless when he’s communicating with his family via emails and letters. He’s serious about his work and it shows in the respect he’s greeted with every morning by his peers. After meeting Phillips and his crew we then cut to Somalia where criminals and gangsters are rallying locals with guns to jump on boats and invade the nearest ship, in hopes to steal large sums of money which can be then given to their “bosses”, whom we never see, but know are not ones to disappoint. Three men are chosen by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) the unofficial leader of the gang of pirates. They all jump aboard a small fishing boat and in a matter of days come across the Mv Maersk Alabama, which is helmed by Phillips. They see immense freight and believe there to be money and valuables on board. They also know that there will be a crew to hold hostage for a big insurance bounty. Phillips alerts his crew, does everything he can to avert the hijacking but it can’t be prevented; the 4 men take over the ship. From that moment on, both Muse and Phillips understand the true extent to which a person’s determination is willing to take them, and nothing goes according to plan.
There’s far more to this story but to reveal it here would be an act of cruelty in itself as Greengrass, screenwriter Billy Ray and Hanks do it greater justice than any reviewer and their attempt at a plot synopsis ever could.
Paul Greengrass who’s renowned for his work on the The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum is also revered for his style, which is the handheld cam – also known as shaky cam. He, however is one of the very few who know how to make it work. Captain Phillips is both a raw, unflinching account and a manipulative Hollywood picture, but it’s Greengrass who knows how to utilise both approaches to the story’s advantage. The screenplay by Billy Ray focuses and prioritises build up and climax, whereas Greengrass lingers on aftermath, and in incorporating both, Captain Phillips thrives as a detailed account infused with realism and at times a semi sugar-coated Hollywood action thriller. The realism coming from the insistence on silence and interaction throughout and the camera work, each movement despite being shaky works to the story’s rhythm. It moves when characters do, it stays when they’re simply talking to one another.
A story of this caliber (especially one that’s based on a real person and incident) that’s funded and distributed by a big Hollywood studio (Columbia Pictures) will always in some way be sensationalised, especially in its climax, as well as telling the story. It’s up to the director in his duties to work with it yet not tarnish the story in question. In the case of Captain Phillips, yes, there are narrative conveniences, yes there is (only a few times) an overly inspirational film score that’s noticeable but it’s only in the construction of the film’s villains that the sensationalism and Hollywood intervening are ever realised. You have the leader (Muse) with a heart that’s triumphed by the possibility of wealth and happiness which allows grounded and human conversations between himself and the film’s hero, Phillips so we understand that even the one with the gun is also a person. Then there’s the young one with inexperience and vulnerability, the one who shuts their mouth and follows orders and finally, the evil one who disobeys instructions and has a bad temperament as so each situation feels more unstable and unpredictable than the last. Each of the pirates being distinct and difference than the other is an attribute and a flaw to the narrative, only due to the rest of the film’s progression, heart and even tension feel so organic.
The true sign of a great Hollywood picture when narrative conveniences are utilised to grab you by the throat and not let go until the first credit rolls. It’s tense, scary and ultimately sad. Convention and familiarity with a genuine heart and soul beneath it can make for the damnedest of results.
To say anymore could possibly rob you of an experience worth enduring but to just emphasise just how good Tom Hanks is this film would be an understatement, he’s used to sensationalised direction and narratives but his efforts here are the film’s most organic aspect making Captain Phillips a great success that will be treasured by most who see it.
By Chris Elena
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer(s): Billy Ray (screenplay)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, David Warshofsky
Runtime: 134 minutes
Release date(s): USA: October 11 2013; Australia: October 24 2013