Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi and Catherine Keener
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: October 11th
Paul Greengrass’ Captain Philips tells the true of story of Richard Philips, the captain of a cargo hauler for Maersk whose ship is boarded by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Forced into the role of leader and negotiator, the captain soon becomes the sole hostage in a lifeboat headed for the Somali coast. Pursued by his old ship and the US Navy, what follows is a piece of cinema so tense, it’s like a piano wire being turned and turned with the violent snap becoming a question of when, not if.
Premiering at this year’s Toronto Film Festival to wide acclaim, this is Greengrass’ fifth film since coming to prominence with 2002’s Bloody Sunday. In terms of style it is very much in keeping with his back catalogue. The handheld cameras are back in action but remain deployed in a manner that simply seems to amplify the claustrophobia rather than make everything look like a pseudo-documentary. Instead the cameras allow us to rise and fall in the ocean with the boats, adding to the sense of unease through the slight hint of nausea. They also take us inside the tight iron rooms of cargo trawler and the fiberglass box that is the lifeboat. The audience are not mere spectators; we are in there with the captain, feeling every second.
The American television series Veep recently speculated that there was no news too bad or too awful that it would not be usurped if Tom Hanks died. I bring it up here as it struck me during the film how we as an audience have come to take Hanks for granted. Sure he’s dependable and has rarely put a foot wrong but rarely is he talked about in terms of the great actors. Yet if you take away the dodgy romantic comedies the man has a considerable filmography, one that is marked by brave choices that are only getting braver. Try to think of another marquee name that would have taken on this story; he doesn’t rescue the girl, he doesn’t rescue the ship and he doesn’t even rescue himself. Yet Hanks has us involved, he doesn’t so much as ground the film as bring it straight to our table. It is of course far too early to state if it’s an Oscar worthy performance (he’s clearly gunning for that with the upcoming Saving Mr Banks anyway) but the last scene alone is one hell of a marker laid down for all of those hoping to compete.
The film’s only notable fault lies with the depiction of the Somali pirates. It’s sad really that Hollywood is yet to sort this out. To the credit of Greengrass and his screenwriter Billy Ray they at least attempt to contextualise the actions of the pirates. We are shown life in their village and how their lives and actions are controlled by local warlords. This has the added benefit of tightening the tension over the film, knowing how small their reward is for such high stakes we don’t want to see them shot any more than we want to see Captain Philips drown. They are not criminals, they are people who find themselves in a criminal position. As characters however, they lack any sense of depth, they simply fall into well-worn clichés; the hot-headed one, the young naïve one and the intelligent one who might just know where all of this is headed but robbed of any other options, simply carries on.
In conclusion, Captain Philips is one of the most rewarding films of the year. Not wanting to sound like a lazy critic but this is a film one survives rather than watches. Everything from the acting, the editing and the soundtrack somehow, despite the fact the fact that we know ending, all serve to build the stakes higher and higher.