Whisper it quietly, but we may have a masterpiece on our hands. Absurd claim, really, for such status can only be conveyed with the perspective of time. Even so: Captain Phillips is a defining moment for one the better directors at work today and an object lesson in how to entertain and challenge the brain at the same time.
Director Paul Greengrass has form with this sort of thing. The underrated Green Zone and the two best Bourne movies (Supremacy and Ultimatum), some of his British TV work and the 9/11 themed United 93. In Captain Phillips he’s on true story territory again, this time with the deceptively simple tale of an American cargo chip, captained by the titular character played by Tom Hanks, which was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Based on Phillips’ own book, there is some controversy over the veracity of the film’s version of events. That’s an important discussion, but perhaps one for another day. For Greengrass has taken the Shakespeare approach to recent history – the use of real-life events as a jumping off point for classy story-telling and the opportunity to tackle bigger themes.
This is a film with less actual ‘action’ than the Bourne movies, but other trademarks remain: close-up shaky hand-held camera work, long scenes of excruciating tension (much like the masterful United 93 in this respect) largely spent waiting for something to (maybe) happen, a remarkable capacity to draw the viewer into the physically enclosed spaces the characters are inhabiting. There’s so much to admire: the performances of both Hanks and Barkhad Abdi (as the lead pirate), the sense of loneliness and desperation as crisis closes in on the unprotected cargo ship and, most significantly, the inter-leaved lives of pirate and cargo ship captains. It’s in this last factor that the film rises to a different level.
In the film’s opening Phillips’ preparations for setting off are cut with telling, short scenes of Somali warlords putting unbearable pressure on desperate locals to get out on the water and find a ship to pirate. As the pirates close on their prey we switch from hunter to hunted with swift cuts; the moment when the pirates burst into the ship’s bridge is fraught with chaos and fear, enhanced by the awareness that this was the moment when the two parties of actors first met each other. A masterstroke. As the crisis draws on, Phillips wonders aloud to his captor “There’s got to be more than kidnapping people”. Silence, then the simple reply “Maybe in America”. Compelled by these three words an emotion bubbles to the surface of the viewers’ consciousness that thus far we’d been dimly aware of but had most likely tried to suppress; that we both fear these pirates, but also feel sympathy for them. There is little choice for them, as at the mercy of their paymasters as Phillips and his crew are at their mercy. As the film’s poster tagline reads, it’s all about survival out here; as much for the gun-brandishing but fearful pirates as the cargo crew. This parallelism continues into the film’s brilliantly acted final minutes as we see the long-term ramifications of the crisis for captor and captured start to take shape; much as there are deeper roots to the events of this film than other directors would show us, so we are also not allowed the easy-out. The ripples will continue to spread for years to come.
So, Captain Phillips is an exceptional film. It challenges the action/thriller’s easy categorisations of heroes and villains; we are given flesh-deep characters with real and full lives; we are drawn in the wider context of politics, global over-fishing and the exploitation of the poor. All that and more – whilst never sacrificing the film’s primary draw card of piano-wire tension which will leave your heart beating over-time twenty-four hours after leaving the cinema. See it, enjoy it and think about it.
I rated this 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 9/10 on imdb.com