During the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama by a crew of Somali pirates, the relationship between the Alabama's commanding officer, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), and his Somali counterpart, Muse (Barkhad Abdi) grows in intensity. Set on an incontrovertible collision course off the coast of Somalia, both men find themselves paying the human toll for economic forces outside of their control. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller:
The sea is not the only thing that is rough in Paul Greengrass's emotionally tense film in which the twists and turns of its real-life hostage drama are as unpredictable as the waves on which it takes place. Based on Richard Phillips' book 'A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea' and adapted by The Hunger Games screenwriter Billy Ray, this is a story with all the ingredients required to deliver for a thrilling, heart-in-mouth experience.
The fact that Tom Hanks is the only recognisable face plays to the film's advantage and Hanks is at his very finest, as the reluctant hero who is cornered into dire circumstances. The film reeks tension as situations shift and escalate steadily but surely, until we are at breaking point. What shines through all the action small and large, is Captain Phillips' great sense of decency; he is calm under pressure but never loses his vulnerability or humanity. As a result, beyond the nail-biting moments and uncertainty of the narrative, the film is an emotional powerhouse, involving us and putting us through the ringer.
It's a clever screenplay that sets the scene and establishes its protagonist in a couple of simple scenes. The conversation on the way to the airport in Vermont between Rich Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) tells us everything we need to know about their relationship and that of their two children. After all these years, it is still difficult to say goodbye but there are no theatrical farewells - just a loving hug without a backward glance. He is a family man leaving to do his job.
By way of a stark contrast in Somalia, we meet the pirates on their home turf, being whipped into action to hijack a ship, by their local war lord. This scene is key, providing the context and reality in which the hijacking takes place. With striking gaunt features and prominent teeth, Barkhad Abdi in his first screen role is wonderful as the desperate pirate they call Skinny, who needs to prove himself. The other Somalian actors are equally effective.
On the commercial cargo ship leaving Oman, we do not have to wait long for the approaching skiffs to speed through the international waters, carrying the gun-toting Somali pirates onboard, dollar signs flashing in their hungry eyes.
There is panic and chaos as precarious steel ladders are hooked onto the side of the ship and the gun-carrying assailants jump onboard. What happens next is a rocky ride on the high seas with the cameras allowing us to lurch with the action. I am not usually a fan of hand-held camera, but here it is used to great effect. The soundscape too is put to good use, accentuating the pounding of the waves and allowing the tension to build.
Greed prompts the next tension gear change and the sequence in which Captain Phillips is taken hostage in a bubble of a lifeboat is terrifying. As for the film's final sequences when the navy and the SEALS become part of the action and desperation mounts as every moment is like a powder-keg. There is minimal dialogue in the pivotal moments which adds greatly to the emotion potency of the moment.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The agonizing and terrifying true story of a giant cargo ship taken captive by four armed young Somalis is excellent material for a piece of thrilling cinema and Paul Greengrass has the right screenplay to work with, adapted from a book written - or at least told - by the man who was captain of the ship, Rich Phillips. Played here with a neat balance of gravitas and restraint by Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips doesn't do heroics, but he does show courage in peril.
The detailed reconstruction of the hijacking is carefully choreographed and explains how a handful of guys with guns can capture such a large ship. It's not easy, but with no weapons to defend themselves, the merchant vessels are - as we know all too well from history - relatively easy pickings. The pirates then demand outrageous sums of money. Poor things have little else to do now that Westerners have fished out their waters. And they have mean bosses, too. To his credit, Greengrass doesn't present this scenario as some sort of moral justification for their actions, and the hero is very much Phillips.
The Somali actors are extraordinary and their screen presence is a visceral force in the film, which is structured in strict chronology; a good decision.
If it weren't for the Greengrass/Ackroyd school of eye-crossing filmmaking, it would be even more intense and gripping, but this filmmaking duo prefer to use a hand held camera in all circumstances. (refer Green Zone (2010), for instance. The ethos continues through the editing, so that chaos is shot chaotically, as if that were necessary. A lot of the confrontations lose their interest as we can't tell who's doing what.
Composer Henry Jackman takes it from there, and shells the soundtrack with musical ordinance, much to the apparent delight of the sound designer who likes to drown out everything that's on screen.
It's a real shame, because if they threw away the hand held camera and turned down the industrial music, the story would shine through more effectively and with less (superfluous) bombast.
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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (M)
CAST: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Max Martini, Catherine Keener, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez
PRODUCER: Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca
DIRECTOR: Paul Greengrass
SCRIPT: Billy Ray (book by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Barry Ackroyd
EDITOR: Christopher Rouse
MUSIC: Henry Jackman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Paul Kirby
RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 24, 2013