Captain Phillips Review | London Film Festival 2013

Captain Phillips Review The highly anticipated Captain Phillips brought to us from masterpiece filmmaker Paul Greengrass, the British director behind United 93 and Bloody Sunday, began the 57th BFI London Film Festival with an almighty bang. Based on true events, this intelligent psychological maritime thriller tells the compelling tale of a real mans ordeal with a Somali pirate invasion in 2009. The film commences with merchant marine captain Richard Phillips – a perfectly cast Tom Hanks in a role he fits like a glove – getting ready to leave his Vermont farmhouse for a dangerous journey on an American container ship around the Horn of Africa. On his way to work, Phillips chats with his wife Andrea (Katherine Keener). They discuss concerns for the state of the economy and the worrying effect it may have on their teenage children’s job prospects. They exchange a warm kiss before they depart. It’s the sort of kiss only married couples of many years share.

We shortly cut to a Somalian fishing village and the pirates preparing for their attack. Muse [‘Skinny’] (newcomer Barkhad Abdi) is choosing men to take on his trip, judging them on their appearance, he needs someone strong. A crowd of eager waving hands shoot into the air, desperate for work in a place severely lacking in opportunities. The village is ruled by a warlord, who they must serve. A teenage boy begs Skinny to take him with him, eventually persuading him by showing him the drug Khat, a stimulant his sister grew. This was a revealing and interesting perspective. Rather than the pirates being simply deemed the evil ‘outsiders’ who bombard the ship out of nowhere, devoid of any depth of character or context, Greengrass has effectively made an effort to show their side of the story and give an insight into their lives and motivations for such a horrific act. He doesn’t present them as innocent by any means, but makes an effort to present the situation as as objectively as possible. The larger issues here, of global capitalism and consumerism, the clashes of wealth and poverty, are subtly thought-provoking rather than points hammered across.

The film holds no punches with the pace, it isn’t long before the action begins. The Captain boards his ship, makes brief small talk with a fellow crew member, and they discuss cargo boxes. He’s evidently a respectful authoritative presence, firm but fair with his team. As to be expected from Greengrass, the camera stays intimately close and the cutting fast. The hand-held effect has been and will continue to be a popular and well-used stylistic method, but Greengrass just has total prowess. Phillips reads an email about pirate warnings, and before long a radar-beep is sounding. From here on, it’s unbearable compelling, a toilet break is totally out of the question.

What starts as two pirate ships descends down to two, as one ship is frightened off by the radio warning they overhear. Skinny, a man full of greed and with nothing to loose, a man who he says himself “may be skinny but isn’t a coward” commits a violent act and takes the lead. Eventually their ladder is hooked on to the ship, and after a leap each is on board. Greengrass doesn’t strive too hard to build tension. There’s no pumping backing track, irritating and obtrusive beats telling the viewer what to expect and when to expect it. Something similar exists, but it’s barely noticeable, and rightly so. There is a large focus on psychological games, interactions and negotiations between the crew and the pirates, particularly between the hijackers amongst themselves and their conflicting methods of how to go about their ‘business’. Greengrass’ trademark style is superbly effective here, the camera is so close we can smell the dripping sweat. The performances are remarkable all round, Faysal Ahmed as Somali performs with such intensity his eyes are practically bulging out of his skull. What is most admirable about Captain Phillips is the way in which it could have easy been a typically patriotic Hollywood vision of heroism. Tom Hanks could have remained totally stoic and strong throughout, a fine example of bravery, who will rise above it all. But it isn’t that simple, or realistic, and Hanks is better than that. What Greengrass has achieved here is making the audience feel they are really in the the midst of truth and trauma.

This review comes from a screening at the 57th BFI London Film Festival 2013 (LFF 2013).

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