Currently in cinemas, Captain Phillips is a dramatisation of the first hijacking of a US cargo ship in nearly two hundred years. The events recounted in the film took place off the coast of Somalia in 2009, and are based on the autobiographical account A Captain’s Duty by Richard Phillips.
As the film opens, we see the titular Captain Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) being driven to the airport by his wife, ready to fly out to Somalia to pilot a cargo ship down the East African coast. The sole purpose of these opening scenes is to show us that Phillips is an ordinary guy with an ordinary family, and to remind us that he lives in a white, Western, middle class world (thus providing a sharp contrast with the world of his Somali captors). I had a moment of doubt at this point, because the dialogue between Phillips and his wife to my mind seemed forced and unnatural. Thankfully, it was the only such moment in the film.
I don’t need to say much about how the film unwinds: what should be a routine assignment turns into a nightmare as Phillips’ vessel is boarded by a ragged group of Somali pirates, who end up kidnapping Phillips in the ship’s lifeboat. He is eventually rescued by US Navy seals wielding an impressive array of technology and weaponry.
A few things worth mentioning:
– British director Paul Greengrass really knows how to make an action movie. Of course, with films like The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and Green Zone under his belt, we knew this already. Some have already complained about the up-close, shaky camera style used throughout the film; personally, I didn’t especially notice it (and I’ve seen other films in which I really did notice it and found it very distracting) – which leads me to conclude that Greengrass uses this technique sensitively and effectively. From the moment Captain Phillips sets foot on the ship, the tension builds steadily, and the film’s 134 minute running time goes by almost unnoticed. To achieve this level of engagement in a film that recounts real events with as little embellishment as possible is the mark of a great director.
– Tom Hanks once again delivers an impressive performance – though one which is, in my opinion, far from his best. (That honour would probably be reserved for his role in Philadelphia or Forrest Gump, with Cast Away a close third.) Whether deliberately or not, Hanks seems to have carved out a niche playing the level-headed “everyman” who finds himself in situations that are far from ordinary. He’s good at it, and the title role in Captain Phillips is safe in his hands.
– We’ve all got so used to hearing about attacks and ransom demands by Somali pirates that they are barely news any more. Captain Phillips does a terrific job of bringing the reality of such events to life in a way that you can feel and relate to. It also starkly highlights the yawning (and probably growing) gap between the income and lifestyle of even the most average Westerner and that of much of the world’s population.
In summary, Captain Phillips showcases some great directing and strong acting that should keep you on the edge of your seat for a good evening’s entertainment, while also highlighting the systemic inequalities that lie behind much of the tension in the world today and should be of concern to us all.