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USA 2013
Directed by
Paul Greengrass
134 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars

Captain Phillips

Synopsis: Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a merchant marine captaining the Maersk Alabama. While sailing past Somalia the ship is attacked by pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and Captain Phillips must try and save his crew.

When Paul Greengrass isn’t shaking a camera at amnesiac super-spies, he can be found applying his considerable talents as a thriller director to more topical fare and the world is richer for it. United 93 stands as a first rate and immersive experience of a plane hijacking. Captain Phillips does much the same thing for being alone at sea with four armed men. It  is one of those fact-based films that will have you gripping the armrest a bit, although some of those facts are currently being debated in court as the crew is suing the shipping company for allegedly putting them in harm's way. Regardless of that, this is a good film that takes you step by step through the process of how a ship gets hijacked, how the crew defend themselves against it, and what you’re meant to do if you get boarded. Container ships apparently have what they call “Pirate Cages” that are padlocked gates that section off parts of the deck of a ship. Their effectiveness is pretty sub-standard though, as in this film at least one of the pirates shoots out the padlock and moves on. There’s also the use of firehoses to ward off the small boats that try to put a ladder on the side of the ship. It seems like a fairly effective defensive tool, though it too fails. Such things make for a tense procedural thriller for the first half of the film, but then the pirates get on board. After that, the drama ratchets up.

Captain Phillips is an interesting contrast to A Hijacking, Tobias Lindholm’s recent film that spends more time psychoanalysing a CEO negotiating for his crew’s release than it does with the experience of the men on board the ship. Here, you’re right in the middle of it and rarely get to step away. Central to its success is Tom Hanks using his everyman actor credentials to draw you into the story of an ordinary Joe trying to turn the situation around while slowly falling apart under the mental strain.

What’s most interesting to me though, is how Greengrass manages to give context to the actions of the Somali pirates without ever really sympathising with them. We see the local warlord’s men come to Muse’s village and tell them to hijack a ship. The local elder points out they already got one last week, but now it’s this week and the warlord wants to maintain cash-flow. So off they go with men vying for the limited positions on the boat. They’re poor and the heist promises quick cash. Once on board the pirates get moments to demonstrate how simplistic their thinking is and how their situation has pushed them to extremities, but their actions are never excused. In the end we see them willing to kill, unwilling to walk away. As Phillips effectively puts it when Muse claims that he’s just a fisherman, “You’re not just a fisherman”.

It probably helps to not know the full story of Captain Phillips’ ordeal before watching the film, because it has one or two surprises in the telling. But even if you do know it, it’s an excellent dramatisation of what must have been a deeply traumatic experience. As with United 93, Greengrass demonstrates a knack for putting you right in the middle of a high stress event.




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