Director Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is another of his audacious attempts to bring controversial, real-life events to the masses through cinema, and once again, he has captured the tone nigh on perfectly.
Complete with his signature use of handheld cameras to compliment the urgency of action sequences, Greengrass’ epic story of heroics and piracy around the African Horn is frighteningly gripping when you consider that similar occurrences continue to happen today around the world.
The film’s narrative rarely loses focus despite his efforts to tell the tale from the angles of both Captain Phillips’ and the hijackers’ points of view simultaneously, which is some feat of cinematography and a credit to the screenplay.
Of course, this film would not be what it is without the incredible performances given by Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips which certainly is amongst his best work and breakout supporting actor Barkhad Abdi as Muse; leader of the Somali pirate band. This work of art easily deflects the recent criticisms over accuracy to possibly become an early leader in the race for 2014’s Academy Awards.
Captain Phillips is adapted for the screen superbly by writer Billy Ray from the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by the Captain in question; Richard Phillips himself and collaborative writer Stephan Talty.
It tells the story of a sea-weary American Captain of a cargo liner carrying relief aid making the dangerous trip from the Republic of Djibouti to Mombasa, Kenya through the notorious pirate plagued waters around Somalia. The drama begins when the Captain spots two suspiciously fast approaching blips on the Maersk Alabama’s RADAR upon which ride a band of four Somali pirates and so the Captain’s worst nightmare becomes reality. So begins a battle of psychology between the two captains ultimately coming to a head in a tiny, stuffy lifeboat in the middle of the north-east Indian Ocean.
The film begins at a slow pace, with Hanks’ character saying his farewells and using this peacetime to effectively establish his character’s values and emotions before his premonitions over the treacherous trip around the African Horn begins in earnest. This simple yet effective world-building sequence is arguably the only period of solace for the audience who are quickly thrust into the classic thriller that Paul Greengrass is known so well for, with titles such as United 93, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy under his belt.
It seems almost as soon as the Kenya-bound liner hits the high seas, the pirates make their heart-pounding entrance culminating in wild blind firing of their weapons in the general direction of out good Captain. The clichéd use of the traditional RADAR screen showing the two green dots closing in on the central one makes for an excellent plot device if overused a little in other films and cements Captain Phillips as a naval thriller for those slow to catch on. It heightens the sense of urgency that is complimented by Tom Hanks’ Phillips checking the RADAR followed by a look down the binoculars a process that is repeated until the audience’s realisation that the vessel is bound to boarded matches Phillips’ coming to terms with the situation he is presented with.
It is hard not to become over-indulgent in praise for Tom Hanks’ performance as it simply is magnificent. We have seen Hanks excel in a similar role to that of Captain Phillips before, the rugged, likeable leader whom reluctantly accepts the responsibilities that lay on his shoulders to protect his colleagues. Of course, I refer to his role in Saving Private Ryan as Captain Miller. It may seem bold to compare Hanks’ Phillips to the performance for which he was nominated an Academy Award in 1999 but I can’t help but think he may be an early contender for the same award in the looming 86th awards ceremony early in 2014.
However, through no fault of Hanks’ the role of Captain Phillips in the film has been brought into question by members of the real-life crew of the MV Maersk Alabama who have argued that the film, based around the Captain, is not as true to events as its creators would have us believe. This may ring alarm bells for Hollywood, being the second case whereby an adapted screenplay has been called out on grounds of innacuracy, the last being Ben Affleck’s Argo. However, judging by the critical reception that that film received (winning the Oscar for Best Picture), Greengrass and the writers will feel they have little to worry about. On the contrary, the adaptation from Billy Ray is of such high quality that we may again have another early contender for an award, this time for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The only aspect of the film that could come close to stealing the spotlight from Tom Hanks is the stellar performance of breakout actor Barkhad Abdi who plays the antagonist named Muse, opposite Phillips. In his first role, Abdi remarkably manages to capture the essence of a man who has clearly bitten off more than he can chew and yet continues to chew regardless. The deterioration of this character through the film can be monitored through a line repeated by Muse and always spoken to Captain Phillips; “It’s going to be okay.” Eventually, Muse comes to question whether what becomes his catchphrase is true or not.
Whilst the film on the whole is a huge triumph for Greengrass, it is not completely without fault. There is a portion of the film where the US Navy is introduced. The focus on this aspect of the conflict between Phillips and the Pirates in final third of the film is slightly too large. For instance, at one point the audience experience a jump in setting from the African Horn back to mainland USA only to witness some troops load up into a cargo plane. The effect of this was to completely break the tension and slow down the course of the film, obviously intentionally but I would argue to a negative effect.
Although clearly one breakdown in progression is a small price to pay when the triumphs this film has made are taken into account. Captain Phillips is nothing but a credit to Greengrass, Hanks, Abdi and the rest of the cast and crew, its highlights being the relationship that is built between Phillips and Muse , the psychological battle that rages between the two and the expertise of Greengrass’ trademark usage of handheld cameras to capture the most tense, action-packed scenes of the picture. I’m sure that the box office will attest to this verdict in the coming weeks and further, that the Academy will see its contribution to this year’s film industry is given recognition in the form of a statuette or two.