Captain Phillips follows the incredible true story of a piracy hijacking in 2009, where an American freighter was boarded by Somali militants near the Horn of Africa. Demands for money and materials quickly escalate as the ship’s captain (Tom Hanks) struggles to maintain control.

Director Paul Greengrass has once again proved himself to be the master of tension and suspense. Captain Phillips grabs you by the throat from the pirates’ disturbing emergence onto the scene, right up to the devastating, inescapable finale. Greengrass’s signature use of handheld cameras returns provides nauseatingly claustrophobic moments on board the ship in and is used in conjunction with panoramic vistas that communicate the crew’s desperate loneliness. Henry Jackman’s score kicks in at key moments to heighten the already palpable atmosphere, using a mixture of familiar percussion and distinctly African sounds which lend an exotic touch.

Hanks is on top form here, and we get the full range of emotion à la Cast Away (2000). It’s rarely a showy performance, the most memorable moments come with near-silence; seeing the ladders being attached, watching his captors argue amongst themselves. The supporting cast is good, mostly comprising of unknowns and the film is all the better for it: these men aren’t action heroes and must come together in order to survive. As one crew member sums it up, “I didn’t sign up for the navy.”

Hanks is on top form here, and we get the full range of emotion à la Cast Away.

At times the dialogue does occasionally stray into cliché grounds but not enough to really penalise. Thankfully, the Somali pirates themselves are not pantomime villains but truly unpredictable rebels that frighten us into fearing the worst for Phillips.

Almost inevitably, the slower middle act sags very slightly, but provides some welcome relief from the almost unwatchable action preceding it. As the film gains momentum in the final half-hour, culminating in an impossibly gripping final showdown, one thinks that perhaps the director is justified in building things up slowly. And the catharsis experienced in the last few minutes is unlike anything I have experienced since Greengrass’s acclaimed United 93 (2006), which is a testament to his mastery of his art and the thriller genre.Both films show ordinary people doing extraordinary things, something that makes for highly emotional and inspirational viewing.

Greengrass remains the one to watch. Captain Phillips is a triumph that explores human endurance, sacrifice and retribution whilst delivering a unique brand of thrill.

Tom Welshman

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1 Comment

  1. Hitch
    November 2, 2013 at 02:00 — Reply

    It seems somewhat hyperbolic to call Paul Greengrass “the master of tension and suspense”. He’s done a fine job with Captain Phillips, but he’s hardly Alfred Hitchcock. I would argue that for the most part, Captain Phillips is an actors’ showcase, Hanks returns after what feels like a long drought in his career.

    My main problem with the film is the tepid lip service it pays to globalisation. Thematically it’s a little blunt in this regard & above all – other than stating globalisation’s existence – it doesn’t do anything with it.

    A fine popcorn thriller, with some great performances.

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