DIR: Paul Greengrass • WRI: Billy Ray • PRO: Michael De Luca, Dana Brunetti, Scott Rudin, Kevin Spacey • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • ED: Christopher Rouse • MUS: Henry Jackman • CAST: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
With the same eye for detail and feel for tension displayed in United 93, Paul Greengrass offers a meticulous and compelling dramatisation of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama container vessel by pirates off the coast of Somalia. When a band of four Somali pirates fails in its bid to take over the container ship, it flees in the ship’s emergency lifeboat, taking the eponymous Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) as a hostage to ransom and drawing down the might of the U.S. Navy’s anti-piracy task force operating around the Horn of Africa. There is a powerful sense of momentum in the story.
At times, it feels as if we are watching an ancient hunt, the seeming mismatch of small hunters and the big prey. The staging of the initial hijacking is an open invitation to tap into the more elemental scenario of harpooners versus whale, where our sympathy, admiration and fear can shift quickly between the risk-taking hunter and the bulky target. Indeed, contrasts—more specifically contrasts in scale—are central to the drama, whether it is the disparity between the skinny, jumpy pirates and the well-fed and relatively calm crew of the Alabama, the small skiffs sniping towards against the lumbering island of the ship itself, and, finally, the AKs and pistols of the kidnappers versus the might of the U.S. Navy.
Without ever descending into a self-regarding right-on polemic, the story zeroes in on the dangerous territory where the safe Western world of the “haves” tangents onto the desperate world of the “have nots.” All of the characters have our sympathy at different points, because, as in United 93, we are aware of the larger tectonic forces of global capital and endemic poverty operating offscreen, like the Greek Gods standing aloof from the mortal conflicts they orchestrate. At the outset, we see that the pirates are intimidated by their superiors. At one point, the nominal leader among the four pirates boasts that he previously achieved a $6 million ransom from a hijacked Greek ship, but when he is asked why he still has to take these risks he has no answer. All he has from that potentially deadly transaction is a hollow pride in its accomplishment. The actual rewards for his risk-taking have disappeared upwards.
Similarly, in our first encounter with Captain Phillips, discussing with his wife (Catherine Keener) his concerns for their son, he makes reference to the fierce competition for employment. Nowadays, he claims, the shipping companies can afford to choose from 50 men vying for one job. It is clearly that this ruthless competition has made him and the crew of the Alabama sign on for this voyage, all too aware of the risks of piracy. While the stakes of need are radically different for the Somali pirates and the sailors, they are felt as compulsively by all of the protagonists. Perhaps the only explicit intervention of the supernal force truly responsible for this drama is the call from Washington to the U.S. Navy captain, who is seeking a negotiated end to the kidnapping, informing him that “there are a lot of eyes on this.” As if this euphemistic instruction hasn’t made things clear enough, it is spelled out that his window of opportunity for a peaceful outcome will close with the arrival of the SEAL team of commandoes.
As usual, Greengrass has cast the film very well, allowing us to intuit much about the kinds of men involved in both the piracy and container shipping without having to dole out awkward backstory. There is no loud Oscar pleading in Hanks’ performance. Like his character, he is workmanlike and understated. He is well-matched by Barkhad Abdi, the calmest head among the anxious group of pirates, who manages to maintain a sense of his own authority even in the intimidating presence of the U.S. Navy. These individual characters, however, play second fiddle to Greengrass’ gift for generating tension in the midst of well-staged action. While he has not abandoned his fondness for the shakycam, the maritime nature of the story excuses the effect, and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd does a wonderful job of memorably framing the contrasts in scale that mark this conflict, in particular capturing the vulnerability of the small bright orange lifeboat bobbing like a slapped bath toy as the enormous Navy vessels bear down on it.
Captain Phillips works too well as a riveting action thriller to perhaps attract any awards recognition, but it succeeds much more powerfully than some of the more grandstanding, overtly political and consequently inert Oscar-bait films by smuggling in a sense of the real-world disparities of power and wealth that, as we are all too aware here, ripple around the world to impact crushingly on individuals struggling either to simply live or to make a simple living. Having provided something as entertaining and resonant as this, there should be an end to calls for Greengrass to revert to the thrilling silliness of the Bourne franchise.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Captain Phillips is released on 16th October 2013