LFF Reviews – Captain Phillips ★★★★

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Tom Hanks finds a perfect part as the real-life Captain Richard Phillips, a canny and experienced American seaman, who is sent to command the US-flagged container ship MV Maersk Alabama , in 2009. He has to steer the vessel safely with a crew he hardly knows or trusts through treacherous waters to Mombasa, in Kenya.

Double Oscar-winner Hanks couldn’t be better as the ultimate everyman character he plays so well here. He plays Phillips as a cautious, intelligent and careful man, and the reluctant victim and hopefully hero of the hour – if only he can survive. We suffer as he does. There’s no false note from Hanks, not one, even as the cameras are pointed up his ears and nose.

So how does Phillips suffer? Well, he’s hardly arrived on the bridge of his ship when he has fears and premonitions of problems with Somali pirates working the seas in the area. He takes action, the best he can. Lock gates on board, have drills, that kind of thing. But there’s not a lot he can do. His crew are competent but seem vaguely mutinous, though he talks them back in the game. He’s sensible, in a chaotic world where no one else is.

Then suddenly, he’s going to go down in history as the captain of the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years. When two small boats of Somali pirates start to follow his ship, he takes more action, seeing off one of the boats. The other keeps pursuing, and despite deploying water cannon and shooting flares, he can’t keep the boatload of four armed pirates off his ship. Surprisingly, there are no weapons on board the US ship. When he calls for help, it doesn’t seem anywhere at hand. He’s told the Somalis are probably fisherman.

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Barkhad Abdi plays his nemesis Muse, a young Somali fisherman turned pirate captain, who lives in a small village on the Somali coast that’s ruled by gangsters. He has to do their bidding – seize a ship. So he his crew target Phillips’ unarmed ship and hold it to ransom for millions. In the ensuing collision course and standoff, 145 miles off the Somali coast, both men find themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Tautly and expertly directed by brilliant British film-maker Paul Greengrass, (The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum, United 93, Green Zone), this extremely fine action thriller is ultra-clear, uber-intense and totally credible throughout. Greengrass makes a thoroughly craftsmanlike job of the film, with effective use of his trademark jittery you-are-there camerawork.

Based on the book A Captain’s Duty, co-authored by the real Captain Phillips, the screenplay by Billy Ray is another well-honed, beautifully crafted and structured piece of work, with convincing dialogue and characters. I don’t think the film raises itself above the level of a distinguished, high-stakes action thriller. It doesn’t really need to. It’s riveting and pulse-pounding and that’s all it needs to be. I don’t buy it as ‘a complex portrait of the myriad effects of globalization’ [Sony Pictures production notes] or ‘a multi-layered riff on the structure of films such as the Howard Hawks Western ‘Rio Bravo’ and Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic ‘The Battle of Algiers’ [BFI London Film Festival notes]. It’s not really a movie for a Film Festival at all, though it’s probably a good thing that it was the Opening Night Gala at the London Film Festival anyway, as a tribute to quality commercial film-making.

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I was gripped and entertained throughout. I know it’s a real story but I enjoyed it like it was Die Hard at sea (Die Hard Me Harties!). And now I’m thinking about it all quietly. You can let all the uncomfortable issues arising from this story rattle round your brain later. This is a visceral movie to thrill to and enjoy.

They might have given Catherine Keener a decent role as Mrs Andrea Phillips, the captain’s wife, and provided her with some proper, interesting dialogue. She could have appeared occasionally throughout the film to great effect, distraught and plotting to get her husband back. In fact, we don’t get to know much about any of the other characters in the film and their lives and loved-ones. It’s just Hanks’s show all the way. A bit more for Keener and more back story for the other folks would have added a lot to the power of the screenplay.

There could also have been developed roles for the chief US negotiator and some of the rescue team, which might have provided the political element the film’s apparently after. There could have been some humour in at least the early part of the film, as the Captain deals with his wife and then the crew. This is of course one of Hanks’s great strengths and he’s denied it here. All this together would add up to the multi-layered film they advertise it as.

Derek Winnert is a leading UK film critic and author working for Vue Cinemas, Shortlist, Onemetal, ILoveMediaCity, cubed3, Letterboxd, Universal Film Magazine, UK Film Review, jonesyinc, The Void, Celebritext and the Film Review annual. He’s also worked for TV Times, What’s On TV, TV & Satellite Week, The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. A member of the London Critics Circle, he is the author of The Virgin Encyclopedia of the Movies, The Film & Video Guide and a biography of Barbra Streisand.