Film review of ‘Captain Phillips’ : Not all plain sailing but United 93 survives at sea

The line “everything will be alright” is repeated throughout, but as the film’s real life events testify, this statement is more true for some than it is for others. British director Paul Greengrass’s (Bourne Supremacy & Ultimatum, Bloody Sunday) masterstroke here is to swiftly convince us of this by showing us Captain Phillips’ (Hanks) everyday concerns in the events leading up to the hijacking of his Maersk cargo ship, and comparing them with those of the Somali pirates who ultimately take him hostage. In this, he takes a cue from his own treatment of another famous hijacking, in 2006’s United 93 – that of the third September 11 plane, which was forced out of the air by its passengers. I found that film to be an extremely emotional experience, and while Captain Phillips was not quite so harrowing, it has more in common with that film than any other in the Greengrass vérité canon.

As with United 93, in which the outcome is also foregone, knowing that the protagonist of this film survives his ordeal – since his memoirs informed the script – does surprisingly little to lessen the intensity of a tangible danger that permeates every scene. Part of this is owed to the authenticity of the young men portraying the Somali pirates: Abdi, Ahmed and Abdirahman were cast with no previous screen credits. Determined, emaciated and hungry, these pirates have little more to lose than their soiled shirts. Their physical appearance alone is half the performance – Abdi (as Muse) in particular excels with a wide-eyed menace and unreadable vacancy of expression, which one constantly fears is concealing some violent intent.

Though hardly a tourist commercial for the Horn of Africa, Greengrass’s attempt to humanise these pirates without sacrificing the tension of the story is commendable. It helps to know a little about where these men come from and the circumstances that lead to their actions. Finally, we’re given a powerful impression of the lasting trauma caused by such an event. An overly long action thriller this may be, but Greengrass never lets us forget that we’re watching human beings, not simply characters.

Captain Phillips (15)

Dir: Paul Greengrass; US thriller/drama, 2013, 134 mins; Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Farsal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, Chris Mulley
Premiered October 24
Playing nationwide