A remarkable and harrowing story about modern-day piracy and understated heroism on the high seas.
For a movie based on a highly publicised, real-world incident, director Paul Greengrass has done a remarkable job of delivering in Captain Phillips one of the more gripping films of 2013.
In 2009, the US commercial ship Maersk Alabama was boarded by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa and its crew taken hostage. Their captain, Richard Phillips (played by professional everyman Tom Hanks) displayed remarkable composure throughout the ordeal, successfully keeping the majority of his crew hidden and leading the pirates on circuitous routes around the ship until his men were able to regain the initiative and force the pirates back off.
The only problem — they took Captain Phillips with them. What followed for Phillips were five punishing days trapped inside a cramped lifeboat as the pirates sought to reach shore before the US Navy could intercede.
Greengrass is perhaps best known for his Bourne films, where he brought gritty realism back into the world of breakneck action. Here, he brings breakneck action into gritty realism. After an unconvincing start burdened by clunky and expository dialogue, the film quickly finds its pace with the first radar blip of the approaching pirates, and from that moment on Captain Phillips is a heart-in-mouth, white-knuckled affair right to the end.
It's also thankfully light on Greengrass's signature 'shaky cam' direction, which might otherwise have made the prospect of sitting through two hours of not just unsteady footage, but footage captured largely on a small, rocking lifeboat, a genuine risk of inducing widespread vomiting.
As the film's protagonist, Hanks is at his vulnerable, relatable best. His torment effortlessly becomes the audience's, all but commanding you to laugh when he laughs, and cry when he cries. Opposite him is Somali newcomer Barkhad Abdi who plays Muse, the leader of the pirates. A wiry actor with an imposing forehead and menacing, half-shut eyes, Abdi holds his own in every scene with Hanks, bringing an unsettling unpredictability to his character that constantly flicks between sympathy and ruthlessness.
Most crucially, his scenes ring true, which for a dramatisation of real-world events is not only critical, but also contributes to the exhausting tension experienced throughout. Together, they and the rest of the team have crafted a remarkable and harrowing story about modern piracy and understated heroism on the high seas.
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