Any hopes or expectations of enjoying Tom Hanks battling pirates will be destroyed in much the same way as recent promises of Liam Neeson punching wolves because sadly, the Gulf of Aden appears to be the wrong district for swashbuckling. I kid, because no one will be under any illusions over the seriousness and fingernail destroying effects of a Paul Greengrass directed movie. Captain Phillips is a masterclass in tension, riveting for its duration without a single misstep.
Tom Hanks is incredible as the eponymous Captain Phillips, in charge of the MV Maersk Alabama, transporting cargo from Oman to Mombassa. He requests and checks the security procedures as a matter of caution, aware of the natural hazards of the route. He’s careful and serious and just trying to do another routine job. However, worst nightmares are realised when a small number of armed Somali pirates trail the ship on an outrigger, but the giant ship manages to outrun their pursuer. Initially, at least.
Greengrass ingeniously reels the viewer into the quick thinking and beating hearts which accompany Phillips’s thought process. He’s a very measured man with great awareness but there’s no one particuarly heroic on board. Phillips and his crew are all just shipping cargo, they’re not exactly Navy. They’re unarmed and out of their depth as the oncoming Somalis won’t give up their gold chase, creating a terrific gradual pursuit as the ship attempts to swerve the tiny armed band of insurgents.
When the inevitable occurs the tension fails to cease. It’s established that Phillips has a family, but it’s a credit to Greengrass that he avoids sentimentality by not focussing simply on what Phillips’s has to lose back home. There’s no sappy music or flashbacks to loved ones, all the tension is created within the confined space of the boat, bouncing off the walls creating more and more nervous energy with each passing frame. Questions of leadership and the complex dynamics of negotiation are painfully considered, ratcheting up intense stakes and power plays all in the most claustrophobic of environments.
The pirates themselves are neither portrayed as wholly evil nor particularly sympathetic. Led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), their powerful position lacks the full professionalism needed to accompany it. The question of how much power do they possess in this dynamic becomes microscopically unravelled.
Without wanting to spoil anything, the last scene is remarkable, cathartic and final, with Hanks showing intense emotion, beyond any limits of experience, hitting it with a euphoric authenticity as the film climaxes and the entire drama explodes with his performance. It must be the greatest moment of his career and caps a clinical and uncompromising accomplishment.
Review by David Rank
Captain Phillips is out now in the UK and US. Running time 134 mins. Certificate 12A (UK).