Tom Hanks doesn’t do action roles any more, according to the veteran actor – he’s got diabetes, and thus is severely limited in his choices on that front. That being said, if he’s still comfortable acting in films like Captain Phillips, we might not have lost out on much; this thriller is tense, stressful and powerful, showing both sides of an unpleasant conflict in grim light.
The film centres on the real-world story of the 2009 seizure of the shipping vessel Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. The trailer makes it seem like a film entirely from the point of view of that ship’s forthright and organised captain, Richard Phillips (Hanks), but the feature almost immediately discards this technique. The film opens with Phillips leaving his home and family to join the crew in Africa, and after his journey is set up we cut to the home of Muse (a marvellous Barkhad Abdi), the pirate who will lead the incursion onto the shipping vessel. His depressing circumstances are made immediately clear, with piracy a forced manner of income rather than some daring fantasy, with bosses demanding huge takes and bigger risks. This scene, while expected for the white American character, is an immediate break from the more conventional route director Paul Greengrass could have taken, and a very welcome one. It straight away establishes a mood of moral quandaries, where the Somalians’ actions cannot be condemned as easily as first instincts demand.
This realism carries into the film’s action, too. Long scenes of drawn-out tension as characters creep around each other are common and expertly composed. What ‘action’ there is comes in brief and chaotic spurts, and with grave consequences. A gash in someone’s hand, left unattended, will get infected, and a bloody foot will not stop bleeding unless bandaged properly. The Navy is not a kind entity, willing to do all they can to help the pirates escape alive. These facts are directly realistic, yet the film’s impressive feat, of creating great reserves of empathy for Muse, results in constant hope for everyone to get away safely and for the sailors to be fine and the pirates to be free, despite ever-slimming chances of such an ending.
Cinematographically, the film is pleasing; in the tight interiors of the ship the camera often hugs a character’s shoulder, claustrophobically limiting the sense of any space. Exteriority is exploited in contrast, with zoomed-out wide shots giving a sense of the immense bulk yet peculiar vulnerability of the immense shipping vessels, and helicopters provide more varied shots once they arrive on the scene. The night time scenes in the final third of the film are beautifully lit, spotlights illuminating tired and terrified faces in dire circumstances. By this point in the movie’s running time, the strain of the situation is likely to be inflicting pain on many audience members’ glutes.
Captain Phillips is a tremendous thriller, which never feels anything but credible and scarily possible. It deals handily with the issues of morality invoked in modern-day piracy, and features a terrific central performance by Tom Hanks, seguing from everyday to extraordinary as the film progresses, and reaching a tremendous peak just as it concludes. It perhaps does not attempt enough to be truly fantastic, but for what it is, there are very few flaws.