Captain Phillips (2013)

Captain Phillips

Taken hostage by Somali pirates, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is a taut cat-and-mouse thriller putting a face to human bravery and a very American gun show.

Captain Phillips

Dead Calm by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Based on Captain Phillips’ own retelling of his story taken hostage by pirates off the Somali Coast, Captain Phillips like United 93 or Schindler’s List is the kind of catastrophe, as the exception rather than the rule, that’s ripe for a Hollywood makeover, happy ending already assured. And while Captain Phillips will inevitably draw comparison with Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, really these two stories of Somali pirates taking a western boat hostage couldn’t be more different. A Hijacking exposes the corporate cost of life through protracted negotiations, while Captain Phillips is a tense thriller culminating in a military show of American might. And Tom Hanks does a good job as the terrorised captain, but it’s not the humanity of the victim (or pirates) that interests Greengrass so much as the smooth heroism of the captain and the US Navy SEALS.

Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) has a new assignment – to sail the Maersk Alabama, a container ship filled with commercial cargo, food aid and drinking water round the coast of Africa from Oman to Kenya via Djibouti. He leaves his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) for pirate-infested seas, training his crew to batten down their hatches with emergency drills that turn rapidly into the real thing. As Somali “fisherman” Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his motley crew gain on them and breach the ship, it’s up to Captain Phillips to prevent the pirates from gaining control, killing the ship dead in the water and hiding the crew in the engine room. It’s a tense cat-and-mouse hunt for the 18 men, until the youngest of the pirates cuts his feet on broken glass and the burly riggers take Muse hostage. A move which results in Captain Phillips striking a deal before again falling foul of the pirates and being carried out to sea in a lifeboat.

Maersk appear to be ruling the cinematic waves, appearing in All Is Lost to Robert Redford’s desperate castaway and again here in Captain Phillips, as the container ship with its unarmed but unionised crew getting into hot water off the coast of Africa. Briskly chiding them away from their extended coffee breaks and slovenly emergency drills, the captain is intent on getting them shipshape. But even still, they’re not much defence against the pirates’ bullets and guns, and it’s not long before they brave the hoses and shoot their way through the locked gates. Greengrass excels at ramping up the tension from the moment the Somali hijackers appear on the radar to the cat and mouse game of manipulation and dissimulation that ensues. But while there are attempts to humanise the pirates – as Somali fishermen forced by criminal overlords into piracy now their seas have been fished dry, they veer between confused and desperate men out of their depth and screeching fanatics.

Once Captain Phillips abandons ship (for the sake and safety of his crew) the film switches gear and rather than focussing on the Captain’s psychological torture on board the lifeboat, Greengrass draws back instead to the USS Bainbridge in a Zero Dark Thirty style night-vision black op. The military rescuers are all blanker personas – cyphers of the American machine – and the greatest dramatic interest isn’t so much whether the now shrieking pirates will kill him, but rather the surety that the Navy SEALS would rather kill the Captain themselves than let the Somali pirates reach the coast and win. There is nevertheless a return to the human story, as the pirates are “green-lighted” and executed, Captain Phillips suddenly alone, covered in blood and in a feverish state of shock. And as he’s carried off the boat into the arms of a military doctor, it’s a good performance from Hanks in a more vulnerable role as the victim overcoming the adrenaline and coming to terms with surviving.

Documenting these recent violent events, Captain Phillips is an examination of the Obama administration, and its muscle in the name of defence. It’s the story of the little man caught up in global politics. But while it explores the human cost of kidnap and torture, the little man gets lost again in political boasting. It’s taut and tense, with a tragically underused Catherine Keener but a nuanced performance from Hanks. And if its heroes and villains are less subtle, there is nevertheless a delicate irony in the States’ position – both a cash cow to be held up at gun point yet still a land of opportunity for the impoverished and disaffected. And as pirate Muse is shipped off to incarceration in Indiana, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips reveals an America that’s home for both the brave and the free – just not at the same time.

Captain Phillips is released on 18th October 2013 in the UK

Join the discussion