There aren’t a lot of big star actors who can convincingly get inside the skin of the ordinary bloke next door like Tom Hanks.
As the master of a supertanker sailing around the Horn of Africa, Captain Phillips is a pudgy, bespectacled and primarily concerned with getting his job done – which makes the crisis with which he must deal even more confronting.
His ship is boarded by four Somali pirates and, to director Paul Greengrass’s lasting credit, they are shown to be desperate men whose deprived socio-economic ‘status’ is unimaginable to us in the West – the opening shot has Phillips and his wife worrying about their son’s future, then cuts to the pirates’ leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), sleeping on the dirt floor of his tin humpy.
Greengrass, better known for the action-packed Bourne blockbusters, was also responsible for the best of the post-9/11 movies, United 93, which this resembles, not only in its close study of end-game terror and the survival instincts that it provokes, but also for the manner in which it allows the bad guys to be human beings.
The story is based on the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and Greengrass takes no glamorous liberties in his realisation of the event on screen.
From the stressful pursuit as the pirates’ outboard-driven boat goes thumping through the ocean swell in the wake of its quarry, to the seizure at gunpoint, to the gripping third act in which Phillips is held hostage by his captors in an enclosed lifeboat as US Navy SEALS combatants prepare a rescue operation, the suspense never lets up.
It’s a masterly work, and Greengrass is expertly served by regular collaborators Barry Ackroyd (cinematography) and Christopher Rouse (editing) in creating the gut-churning tension. But it is the desperate face-off between Phillips and Muse that absorbs.
We should not be surprised by Hanks’s performance – his talents are known to us – but first-timer Abdi is spellbinding in his bitter fatalism, as is Faysal Ahmed as Najee, the uncompromising firebrand.
~ John Campbell