Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips, Stephan Talty (book)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener, Max Martini
Release date: October 11th, 2013
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 134 minutes
Best part: Hanks’ potent performance.
Worst part: The one dimensional villains.
They say that: “truth is stranger than fiction”. The aforementioned saying specifically applies to extraordinary events that re-shape the world. People judge reality by comparing what they see in real life to what they see on the big screen. Thankfully, docudramas break down societal barriers and provide explicit accounts of history’s most delicate and harrowing moments. Subjectively re-creating historical events, docudramas are, nowadays, as informative and engaging as news bulletins. Captain Phillips, thanks to its compelling material and talent, becomes one such powerful and revealing docudrama.
Thrilling and intense docudrama surges along whilst developing an attentive re-creation of one of the past decade’s most enthralling sagas. The story, based on Captain Richard Phillips’ book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, documents Phillips’ terrifying ordeal and the contrast between men of vastly different cultures. Set in 2009, the plot kicks off with a beguiling insight into a small aspect of Phillips’ existence. Chatting to his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) shortly before travelling overseas on business, Phillips discovers a monumental rift between his work and home lives. This latest adventure involves captaining the MV Maersk Alabama cargo ship from Oman, through the Gulf of Aden, to Mombasa. The perilous journey, from one port/safe haven to another, will test Phillips’ multifaceted role as the ship’s leader, negotiator, and protector. Meanwhile, on Somalia’s golden, sweltering coastline, fisherman and pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is sent by his leaders to attain a sustainable bounty drifting out at sea. Taking control of his life-threatening mission, Muse takes several Somali pirates with him to board and hijack the Maersk Alabama. Using machine guns and tenacity, the pirates quickly head for the ship. Both crews’ captains push themselves, even before saying a single word to one another. Taking over the ship, Muse puts a gun to Phillips’ head and yells into the intercom to kickstart this chilling hostage situation. However, Phillips refuses to give up without a fight.
Despite being hyper-aware of the true story’s outcome, I was immediately hurled into this emotionally affecting and intense thrill-ride. The story, altered to maintain the movie’s intensity throughout its exhaustive 2+ hour run-time, has been debated by historians and witnesses since the movie’s release. Despite understanding their points of view, I support the movie’s presentation of Phillips’ guile and bravery during his nightmarish ordeal. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, Bournes Supremacy and Ultimatum) is one the most influential directors currently working. His style, treading the line between realism’s limitations and cinema’s overwhelming potential, builds recognisable and fear-inducing worlds. Here, Greengrass ably compares Phillips’ home life to his pressuring career and its life-threatening side effects. The story, with its intensity and urgency escalating throughout, uses a limited amount of dialogue to convey Captain Phillips‘ ingenious and heart-aching messages. In the movie’s opening scenes, Phillips and Muse are depicted as determined and peculiar beings willing to die for what they are paid to protect. Greengrass’ attention to detail and staggering scope develop a 21st century hostage saga with consequences and thought-provoking morals. Greengrass, efficiently re-creating the intricacies of this life-changing ordeal, never lets the viewer forget about the story’s thematic and historic relevance. The movie’s gritty and profound depiction of this saga reminds us of the First and Third Worlds’ gargantuan differences. The contrast between Phillips and Muse’s existences defines Captain Phillips‘ emotional and psychological impact. However, unlike many docudramas, the movie is neither pro-America nor anti-globalisation. Greengrass sticks to his strengths to deliver a hostage-thriller about fathers, sons, leaders, and honour codes.
Captain Phillips, despite its gripping realism and frightening narrative, follows an understandable hostage-drama narrative. This moving and grounded action-drama is bolstered by Billy Ray(Shattered Glass)’s clever dialogue. Standing out within this hostage-thriller’s numerous tension-fuelled sequences, several quips and phrases define this movie’s purpose. With Phillips and Muse staring each other down, Ray’s dynamic screenplay hurriedly explains how one wrong word can lead to a bullet in the head. Of course, the audience, despite the movie’s emotional core, will turn out for the kinetic visuals and all-important hostage crisis. Greengrass’ masterful and affecting direction has been aimlessly copied by action-thriller directors throughout the past decade. After The Bourne Supremacy wowed audiences with visceral fight scenes and stomach-churning camera-work, Greengrass was labelled one of Hollywood’s most intriguing visionaries. Captain Phillips is the third Greengrass helmed Hollywood hit, following United 93 and Green Zone, to tackle a horrifying true story. Mixing realistic situations with electrifying visuals, Captain Phillips, from the first pirate siege sequence onward, becomes edge-of-your-seat entertainment. The attack sequences, illuminating Greengrass’ grainy and pulsating style, highlight the characters’ bold motivations. This survival tale of high seas terrorism would have suffered without Greengrass’ theatrics. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd throws us directly into this nightmarish ordeal. The quick cuts, shaking cameras, close ups, and rush zooms may turn people away, but it’s their loss for avoiding this confronting docudrama. Switching from the expansive cargo ship to the claustrophobic lifeboat, the relentless hostage crisis amicably kicks off a disarming whirlwind adventure.
“It was supposed to be easy. I take ship…ransom…nobody get hurt.” (Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Captain Phillips).
Though Captain Philips contains brutal violence and engaging action set-pieces, the cat-and-mouse battle of wits is worth the admission cost. Comparing Phillips’ familial issues to Muse’s on-going fight for respect and survival, Captain Phillips subtly transitions into a movie about fathers, leaders, privileges, and consequences. The story-lines, though delicate, contain hard-hitting similarities that define the movie’s all-important themes. The contrasting story-lines are, thankfully, elevated by the characters. Representing the ‘working man’s hero’, Phillips becomes an avatar for the average film-goer. These unique individuals, despite their commendable ideologies and work ethics, are presented with a limited amount of dialogue. Searching the ship and crew for weaknesses, Phillips becomes a tough-as-nails leader with the best intentions. Captain Phillips treats its titular character with respect, but never presents him as a multipurpose action hero. Despite the Die Hard-esque ‘wrong place, wrong time’ premise, Phillips is a restrained man who uses words instead of weapons. We all love seeing Hanks portraying larger-than-life personalities in such classics as Forrest Gump and Toy Story. However, he also excels at playing scarily moody and straight-faced heroes. Here, Hanks garners a scraggly grey beard and thick Boston-Irish accent to develop an intriguing portrait of this courageous individual. Taking on hard-hitting scenes with raw passion, Hanks proves he is one of Hollywood’s greatest treasures. Former limo driver Abdi delivers a nuanced and enlightening performance as the pirate leader. Fleetingly transitioning from purposeful villain to sensitive soul, Muse is a fascinating baddie. Juggling Phillips’ tricks and his crew members’ wavering emotions, he is a fascinating force whose moral compass guides him. Unfortunately, his crew members are defined by archetypal character traits. The quiet, mysterious, and loud-mouth pirate characters become annoying follies.
Not for the faint-hearted, Captain Phillips excels thanks to its attention to detail, solid performances, and tension-inducing thrills. It’s exceedingly commendable that big-name directors can become invested in heart-breaking and engaging historical events. Here, Greengrass evolves into a cinematic newscaster – throwing us into a true story that immediately enthrals.