A ruthless, ripped-from-the-headlines seafaring thriller with a vintage turn from Tom Hanks.
They say never work with kids or animals. Try shooting on open water, on a commercially chartered cargo ship, with a cast comprised primarily of non-actors. That's the challenge undertaken by British director Paul Greengrass for his taut maritime drama, Captain Phillips, based on the real events surrounding the hijacking of the US tanker MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009.
An obvious companion piece to Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm's superior siege thriller, A Hijacking, Greengrass' film relies on a winning balance of nerve-jangling tension and full-throttle conflict that's carried off with the level of fluidity and panache you'd expect from the maker of United 93 and Bournes Supremacy and Ultimatum. More tangibly, this is a film that boasts an unforgettable central turn from Tom Hanks, his finest since early Noughties double-header Road to Perdition and Catch Me If You Can. It's a role that feels tailor-made for an actor whose talent has always shined brightest in those moments of contemplative solitude so rarely afforded in mainstream cinema.
It starts off just like any other day. Some forgivably hokey exposition hints at the loving home life the good captain could be about to unwittingly leave behind, before the real action proceeds to unfold at sea, 600 nautical miles off Africa's east coast to be precise. Despite heeding a warning message and adhering to standard protocol, an opportunistic group of rookie pirates — fronted by the wild-eyed Muse (Barkhad Abdi) — successfully boards and commandeers the vast tanker. With the crew hiding out in the hull, Captain Phillips remains deck-side in an attempt to negotiate a smooth and peaceful transaction. But these pirates aren't about to be pawned off with a few paltry stacks from the ship's safe, and so after a period of sly outmanoeuvring Phillips is made to board a lifeboat. His fate seemingly sealed.
In switching from the labyrinthine fortress of the ship to the airless confines of this claustrophobic tangerine escape pod Captain Phillips evolves into a visceral hostage saga, its physical and emotional intensity compounded by both the language barrier between Phillips and his increasingly desperate captors and the seasick kineticism of Greengrass' direction. Phillips is a man of faith, not in god, explicitly, but in the inherent good of humanity. He firmly believes that if he complies with these poverty-striken thugs, if he can endure the threats and lashes, he will see his wife (Catherine Keener) and crew again. As the hours pass and optimism turns to bargaining and finally acceptance, however, Phillips is broken down, slowly, agonisingly, until there is virtually nothing left.
Just as Kathryn Bigelow did with her masterful hunt-for-Osama procedural, Zero Dark Thirty, Greengrass shrewdly side-steps flag-waving triumphalism at the end of a long and draining third act. When it finally arrives — Phillips now stripped bare, a quivering, incoherent shell of a man forced to endure an unimaginable trauma — the film's moment of catharsis is loaded not with revenge-driven gratification, but pure, unadulterated relief. It's a scene that will be remembered for Hanks' phenomenal performance, which must surely rank among his very best work, but its true power comes from Greengrass' unrelenting search for cinematic truth.
Tom Hanks at sea. Haven't we been here before?
Classic Greengrass. Gripping true-storytelling with an ending that will leave you in stunned silence.
Hanks' performance stays with you, but not a great deal else does.