Like no other modern director of mainstream movies, Paul Greengrass captures the geo-political spirit of the times while keeping his films very personal. That’s harder than it sounds. Marshaling action, fights and explosions and still making a film intimate and engaging is quite a trick. From his Bourne films to United 93 and Green Zone, Greengrass pinpoints and examines the big issues that trouble us while making sure we feel a strong connection with the protagonists who finds themselves in such extreme situations. These are action movies without action heroes.
And so it is with Captain Philips, a tale of piracy on the high seas which couldn’t be further away from the cosy caricature of pirates as rum-swigging rogues we’ve grown used to in recent years. This is modern day piracy. There are no drunken dandies in tricorns; it’s brutal, relentless and terrifying.
The film opens with Tom Hanks’s character Captain Richard Phillips at home in the USA preparing for his next voyage, skippering a huge container ship, the Maersk Alabama, around the Horn of Africa. On the drive to the airport he and his wife discuss the uncertainty of the modern world and how everything changes so quickly. They worry about what the future holds for their kids. He tries to reassure her, somewhat unconvincingly, that everything is going to be okay. This phrase becomes a recurring mantra in the film, its meaning mangled through repetition.
He’ll be sailing off the coast of Somalia and is well aware of the dangers of piracy. he knows full well that everything might not be okay. Neatly counterpointing this scene of caring domesticity are scenes in Somalia of warlords rounding up men for pirate raids, press-ganging villagers who are given bags of guns and chase down ships as big as towns in tiny boats of their own.
These two different worlds collide in one of countless brilliantly orchestrated scenes in the film. Phillips, anxious about the pirate threat, has just put his crew through a pirate attack drill. Then he spots small boats approaching on the radar and the tension mounts as they close in, blips on a screen becoming a terrifying reality.
A game of cat and mouse ensues as Phillips tries various ploys to evade the pirates, stop them getting aboard and when they do, attempts to outwit the four invaders. Phillips locks horns with their leader Muse (Barkhard Abdi), a charismatic character who Phillips tries to placate and influence, him being the least erratic of all the invaders.
The tension that ratchets up from the opening scenes of the pirate attack barely relents for the rest of the film. It’s an exhausting but exciting ride, the balance of power constantly shifting between the pirates and Phillips as the full force of the US Navy is deployed to rescue the American citizen.
That the film is so gripping is due to Greengrass’ superb direction, orchestrating action on a huge scale but keeping the essential psychological struggle between Phillips and the pirates at the centre of things. Hanks is excellent as Phillips, the heart and soul of the film, but he’s matched by Abdi in his first film, who is a magnetic, dangerous and complex presence.
Based on an incredible true story, Captain Phillips is riveting, involving movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.