Captain Phillips is the true story of a cargo ship skipper whose vessel was overrun by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. It gives British director Paul Greengrass, the man at the helm of United 93 and the first two ‘Bourne’ films, licence to indulge two of his favourite storytelling pastimes: high-stakes tension and real-world politics.
It also sees Tom Hanks playing an unexceptional guy at the heart of an exceptional crisis. Bearded and paunchy, he’s a no-nonsense manager-type whose workplace becomes the focus of a Navy Seals operation. Greengrass doesn’t deny him heroic qualities – Phillips shows resilience and courage – yet there’s nothing superhuman about him. It’s one of Hanks’s most affecting performances in years. Watching one scene, in which he suffers a full-on emotional collapse, you’ll start to wonder if panic attacks are contagious.
Greengrass lands us on the enormous Maersk Alabama with little time for distracting set-ups – although straightaway he portrays the four pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), as something more than just foreign baddies, as he cuts between their preparations and Phillips setting off abroad. Quickly he establishes a no-frills economy that applies to the rest of the film. He creates claustrophobia when introducing us to the strange, ghostly world of this ship at sea in foreign waters.
It’s then, with an awful inevitability, that he presents the David-and-Goliath like attack on the ship by a pair of diminutive vessels, and finally encloses us with Phillips and his captors in a tiny lifecraft as they try to negotiate a ransom. This last section is a masterclass in containment and fear. It’s at this point that Goliath fights back – and for a few moments Phillips and his enemy appear equally vulnerable in the face of an impending US Navy attack-cum-rescue operation.
Much of Captain Phillips feels like being slapped in the face by rigging and blasted by sea spray. It deftly combines a sense of measured calm with one of creeping hysteria. The emotions of its lead character are like a bottle of champagne whose cork only pops right at the end of the movie – although there’s little to celebrate. Some survive, some don’t. But the world remains as divided at the end of Greengrass’s tale as it was at the beginning, and if there are some telling moments of communication between Phillips and Muse, they always remain a world apart.