By Harry Donald
Captain Phillips is a pulsating account of the kidnapping of the captain of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates. The director, Paul Greengrass (The Bourne trilogy, United 93, Bloody Sunday), teams up with Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), to create a high-octane thriller which keeps you hooked throughout the entire 2 hours and 14 minutes.
With his uncontrollable fast-paced style, Greengrass could probably make the washing of dishes look exciting. So, it was almost a no-brainier that he could successfully complete a story like this, which features not only physical challenges but a volatile political backdrop. Still, for a story that puts locals versus Americans in the Middle East, and has a climax that involves Navy SEAL’s, U.S. choppers and warships, the film is gripping the whole way.
Phillips just wants to get this job done as quickly as possible, collect his check and go home.
Richard Phillips is a middle-aged captain who bids his wife (Catherine Keener) goodbye in Vermont in March 2009 to take an enormous container ship from Oman down along the coast of Somalia and then to Kenya. Unusual for a vessel in these waters, the Maersk Alabama from Norfolk is an American ship, manned by a U.S. crew. Phillips is very blunt with his crew members and, given the rise in pirate attacks, is extremely vigilant with security protocols. He doesn’t say it in many words, but it’s clear Phillips just wants to get this job done as quickly as possible, collect his check and go home.
On the beach in the pirate city of Eyl, Somalia, voyages of a different sort are being organized. Shouting, rifle-brandishing young African men are recruiting crews to hijack large vessels out at sea and bring back money, as well as hostages, who may be exchanged for large sums of money. Dozens of skinny black men, mostly in their teens and 20s eagerly volunteer for action. In short, enough to man two small boats are selected. These makeshift skiffs set out in pursuit of bounty and successfully board the U.S. container ship, kidnapping the Captain.
The tense screenplay by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, The Hunger Games) makes no mention of religion, Al-Qaida or the war on terror. Ray concentrates on the reality of poverty-stricken young men, some of them fishermen, pushed to extreme measures by the big-bucks bandit bosses offer for western hostages. It’s ‘just business,’ declares the head Somali pirate.
One thing that stands out to me, and that I think the director has done very well, is the contrast within the film. There are diverse settings, a mix of languages and accents, the combination of technologies high and low. The laying out of logistics, constant movement from place to place, and themes related to the outer limits of human resilience and endurance give the film a breathtaking feel.
On the other hand, the Somali pirates are filmed with bad lighting and from a hand-held camera.
The contrast in camera shots and angles helps us picture the different lives of the two groups. The Maersk Alabama is filmed with very wide panning and tracking shots, often from below the bridge, these shots allude to the fact that this awe-inspiring piece of American steel is formidable. On the other hand, the Somali pirates are filmed with bad lighting and from a hand-held camera. The shots are often close-ups of the work going on, but the camera moves quickly on, almost like he is spying on the pirates.
All things considered, these factors make for a solid movie and an exceptional thriller. Greengrass has contrived another fasted-paced film, yet Captain Phillips is more original than the cliches of the Bourne movies. Tom Hanks has once again laid down a remarkable performance, showcasing his skill and proving his worth to the worldwide film industry.