Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a container ship heading around the Horn of Africa. En route they are set upon by four Somalian pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi). He and his cohorts are after money – more than the ship is carrying – and begin to search for the crew of the ship, who are hiding in the engine room whilst Phillips is held hostage on the bridge.
Paul Greengrass is certainly carving himself out a nice little directorial niche as a teller of true-life, edge-of-your-seat suspense thrillers which, regardless of whether you know the ending or not, will keep your pulse racing throughout. The closest comparison to Captain Phillips within Greengrass’ work is United 93, the multi-stranded account of the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, which took an unusual stance by showing the events from the side of the terrorists, as well as the passengers and air traffic controllers. The same is true here, where Greengrass’ much-imitated hand-held camera style follows not just Hanks’ captain as he leaves the house, says goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener) and boards the boat he’ll be commanding, but also the leader of the gang for whom said boat is their next target.
Abdi, who famously was an aspiring actor and taxi driver before being cast in the role that so far has seen him garner a BAFTA alongside his Oscar nomination, imbues Muse with a desperation that the actions he takes throughout the film are his only option, but retains a sense of intensity that cements his image as the ringleader of a gang of villains for whom you cannot hope this will end well for. The rest of his crew – Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali – are all great too, but suffer from less screentime than their leader, yet still manage to be well enough rounded characters to do their job. They all play various notches along the sliding scale of hope-they-die-horribly, and in particular Ahmed easily crosses the border into utterly terrifying at various moments.
The star of the show here, alongside Greengrass’ direction, is Tom Hanks. It’s becoming a running theme on my recent reviews, but the fact he wasn’t nominated for the Best Actor Oscar angers me, especially when the likes of Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio were nominated instead for what I consider to be far lesser performances. There are a lot of subtleties to Hanks’ performance, from the steely struggle maintaining a new crew before the attack, to the desperation and self sacrifice he performs in the aftermath. The final few moments though are awards worthy on their own, with Hanks showing the kind of raw emotion we’ve not seen from him in a long time. It’s the kind of performance that leaves a hollow, sick feeling in your gut, and that is the kind of work that needs applauding.
The pace is well maintained throughout the entire picture, and when I used the phrase “edge of your seat” earlier I meant it with no amount of hyperbole. If the Best Picture award is given to the most tense, nail-biting film nominated, as was the case with last year’s Argo, then Captain Phillips will win hands down, with a second place nod for Gravity. As it stands I don’t think this film will win in the end – personally I grant that accolade to 12 Years A Slave – but I’m very happy Captain Phillips has gained a nomination. It’s a thrilling, gripping, at times harrowing film, and one I hope to return to at some point in the future, once my heart has stopped racing from this viewing.
Choose film 9/10
I totally agree and actually wrote about this film yesterday. Have you seen Bloody Sunday? That’s another up-close look at a real event and even more intense than this one. I’m right with you on Hanks, who’s rarely been better.
I’ve not seen Bloody Sunday, but I’m a fan of James Nesbitt so I really should, thanks for the recommendation.
I had trouble getting emotionally invested in this. Perhaps it’s just too close in history and I’m too familiar with the story. I think it’s really well made and Abdi is fantastic, but there was something about it that left me cold.
I wasn’t that familiar with the story. I knew Phillips survived, but didn’t know much about the fate of the pirates, the lifeboat stuff etc., so I think that helped grip me a little better. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.
Oh, I didn’t dislike it. I just didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. I think it’s good but not great.
Good review Jay. One of my best thrillers of the past year, as well as one of my favorite performances from Hanks in the past decade or so. Shame that he didn’t get nominated for this. Truly is.
Thanks Dan. I couldn’t agree more about Hanks’ snob. I don’t think he’d have won against McConaughey or Ejiofor, but he’s definitely better than some of the other nominees.
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