Captain Phillips Review

British director and master of suspense Paul Greengrass returns to screens this week with Captain Phillips (12A). Based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, And Dangerous Days At Sea – which details the incredible true story of the 2009 hijacking by pirates of an American cargo ship – it’s an impressively told and suitably gripping thriller, and one of this year’s many highlights.

What’s it about? The narrative begins in Vermont, with Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) saying goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener) and boarding the Maersk Alabama to pilot its cargo to Oman, passing through dangerous international waters off the Somali coast on the way. The ship is soon captured and boarded by a band of four Somalian pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Unsatisfied with Phillips’ offer of $30,000, Muse takes the Captain hostage in one of the Alabama’s lifeboats in return for ransom. With US Navy seals in hot pursuit, tempers between the pirates flare as Phillips’ life hangs in the balance.

Verdict: Even though the way in which events play out is common knowledge, after a clumsy opening ten minutes, Captain Phillips ratchets up the tension and seldom lets it ebb. Greengrass’ penchant for shaky-cam is put to good use here, with the well-trained eye of experienced cinematographer Barry Ackroyd adding realism to the spectacle. Additionally, Billy Ray’s script takes the time to flesh out its antagonist. The conversations between Muse and Phillips make it clear just how stuck the malnourished pirate leader is – their pitiless bosses won’t accept anything other than a major score – giving the audience a degree of empathy for the character.

Once the Alabama is boarded, the focus shifts to the relationship between Phillips and Muse, and both Hanks and Abdi are engaging presences. Hanks adds another excellent performance to a career already littered with them, with the nerve-shredding final scenes in particular showcasing the multiple Oscar-winner at his very best. Whilst Hanks’ Phillips is admirably calm for large segments of the film, Muse and his cohorts are anything but, and their manic demeanours are immediately arresting. For much of the runtime, Abdi plays the role with wide-eyed ruthlessness, but the previously unheard of actor matches Hanks beat-for-beat in the film’s later introspective moments as well.

Final Words: Aided by an involving central performance from Hanks, Captain Phillips is a suspenseful, harrowing thrill-ride that both engages and exhausts. A worthy opener to this year’s London Film Festival.

Rating: 4 / 5      

Captain Phillips opened the 2013 London Film Festival, and opens in UK cinemas on 18 October.