VOD film review: Captain Phillips
Did we mention the tension?8
James R | On 11, Feb 2014
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
We’ve never been held captive on a boat by pirates, but after A Hijacking and Captain Phillips, we can say with confidence that it isn’t very nice. In fact, it’s downright nerve-shredding. But if you’re going to experience the horrific tension of guerrilla soldiers invading your freight ship, Paul Greengrass’ thriller is probably the most enjoyable way to do it.
Enjoyable is, of course, an adjective we use very loosely. Greengrass’ film is an emotionally exhausting yet ruthlessly efficient watch: we meet Captain Phillips (Hanks) for all of five minutes before he heads out to sea, a flash of conversation with his wife (the always believable Catherine Keener) providing all the characterisation we need to dock our sympathies in Hanks’ harbour.
What’s surprising is that Greengrass spends almost as much time on the opposite shore as he does with the Yanks. The story climaxes in a gung-ho display of Team America patriotism but this is far from Tom Hanks vs the Pirates. Hanks is astonishing as the titular skipper, his polite, stubbled exterior gradually giving way to bearded cries of pain, but the show is stolen by young newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Playing piratical leader Muse, his awkward brutality is scarily unpredictable, while an extended recruitment scene in poverty-stricken Somalia (where crowds queue up on the beach to bring home riches) gives his nervous violence a desperate, human edge. “No more games, Irish!” he yells, his wonky teeth more intimidating than his naive threats.
The other invaders form a stereotypical motley crew but the contrast between the two leads makes for a gripping confrontation, particularly when the action moves from the giant vessel to a cramped, sweaty lifeboat. The claustrophobia, though, sets in long before then. Toning down the hectic handheld footage, Greengrass takes his time to tell his story, using lots of restrained, steady shots that emphasise the slow burn. There may be seasickness for some, but worse is the queasy awareness that we’re in it for the long haul. So, when the final act arrives, you’ll be just as tired as the Captain – a gnawing exhaustion that gives Hanks’ final moments on screen a staggering impact.
That’s where Captain Phillips succeeds. Not as a big budget maritime blockbuster, but as a personal fight for survival. You’ll be gripped by every second – even after you run out of fingernails to bite and start chomping at your elbows.