Having helped redefine the action genre with his Bourne films Paul Greengrass returns to the dramatisation of real world events with his customary verve with Captain Phillips, based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.
As with United 93 and Bloody Sunday Greengrass finds the human element quickly and establishes Tom Hanks as a family man with Catherine Keener as his wife talking about the difficulties of doing the job at sea. The almost mundane topics of working on these ships for long durations and how the young crew members are moving up the ranks faster than ever enforce a false sense of security and as he leaves Keener says the words ‘travel safe’, a farewell which will come to haunt her in the days to come.
Key to the director’s work is how the extraordinary affects the ordinary, and Hanks and Keener convey the sense of routine perfectly. When Greengrass takes us to Somalia the contrast in lifestyle quickly builds tension as we know that these two worlds are about to collide.
Greengrass’s trademark grainy look and handycam style is especially prominent in this first look at the Somalis. The haphazard and dangerously random style of life is conveyed well as the Somali bosses come into the village demanding that the villagers go back out on their small skiff fishing boats as pirates. Barkhad Abdi plays the part of Muse, the hardened man who is tasked with getting a crew together to raid these ships large ships. The discovery that the ship is a US Container, bigger than anything they’ve tried to take before, spurs them on rather than intimidates them. Greengrass is keen to show this turn of events as a fact of life, a very hard life which forces desperate men into dangerous waters.
There is a keen sense of foreboding created when Captain Phillips boards the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, a ship with a crew of around a dozen whose respect for their Captain is especially evident. As he boards we see him looking at the cage doors and Phillips passes on the message to his First Officer that these need to be locked and bolted. Even in port we begin to feel the danger becoming more real, the threat is always on our minds.
As the tension mounts Phillips starts getting notice that an attack is imminent with updated warnings coming in via email, so much so that he orders an attack drill. All the crew man the deck and rig up a clever water hose system to try to deter any would be attacker boarding the ship. Halfway through the drill, two boats appear on the radar and so begins one of the terrible attack, and the tension becomes almost unbearable.
Hanks shines again as another everyman; his accent, the manner of address, his physicality help you believe that he’s the captain of the ship, you understand implicitly that what he says goes and you believe that he’s actually gone through this ordeal to be able to play the part of Captain Phillips so convincingly.
Greengrass has once again created an epic scale blockbuster using a relatively small cast, and is able to draw stunning performances all-round. Even if you know certain parts of the story Greengrass mines the real world events for the details to draw out the suspense.
Each player in this seabound standoff are given their due, and judgement isn’t bestowed by the director; the agendas are clear, the motives are complicated but unclouded by bias. The lengths the US Government goes to in ensure they send an intimidating message to other would-be pirates are stunning and the moment the horn on the USS Bainbridge sound rivets you to your seat. The main group of Somalis played by Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali were all perfectly cast. Crucial to the film is the empathy for Muse in particular where he reveals he simply has no choice but to live as a pirate and how one day he’d love to live in America but deep down both he, and the audience, know it’s not going to end well.
In a stroke of genius Greengrass didn’t let the actors playing the pirates meet Tom Hanks and the rest of the cast playing the crew of the Maersk Alabama so when they storm the bridge with AK-47’s, the feeling of terror is all the more real.
The third act takes the fight into a far more claustrophobic as Captain Phillips is sectioned off with the Somalis, which in contrast to the wide open seas finds yet another level of tension. Here, as in the rest of the film, you’re sitting on the edge of your seat just wondering what’s going to happen next.
This is a triumph for Greengrass, and despite some unexpected slowdown during the hunt for the crew on the Maersk Alabama it cements his reputation as a director who can bring a thrilling account of a terrifying experience to the screen in style. His ability to draw out the human element and maintain a tight control over the action is a wonderful counterpoint to the dozens of sub-par action films which litter the cinematic ocean.