Crosscutting between two separate storylines may be an old device but it is used to great effect at the beginning of Captain Phillips, the adrenaline-charged true-life adventure that may earn Tom Hanks yet another Oscar for his mantelpiece. The film opens on the eponymous captain, played by Hanks, as he prepares to leave for the airport to fly from the United States to the Arabian Peninsula to shepherd a giant cargo ship south around the Horn of Africa. We cut from this decent family man to a sand-blown village somewhere in Somalia, where a rag-tag group of underfed young men is bullied into heading out to sea to bring in another “harvest.” But these guys are pirates armed with AK-47s, and they hunt the many tanker ships that transit the waters off their coast.
Within 10 minutes of screen time the Maersk Alabama is under siege, and the tension never really lets up from that moment. After a brief confrontation the pirates board the unarmed vessel, and their leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), takes Phillips hostage.
What follows is mostly a full-on thriller, as the crew fights back in ingenious ways. Eventually the American navy is mobilized, sending warships and SEALs to help resolve this high-stakes standoff in international waters 145 miles from the Somali coast.
The film’s talented director, Paul Greengrass (United 93, Green Zone), has always been drawn to moral complexities, and what could have been just a genre film is also a thoughtful examination of our inter-connected world. He pairs off the two captains, finding surprising aspects of commonality between Phillips and Muse. He also displays empathy for these ignorant Somali gangsters, hapless
victims of a failed state who only took up piracy after their waters had been fished-out by international mega-trawlers.
Greengrass is the action stylist famous for the fast cutting and “shaky cam” visual panache of the last two Bourne movies. Although we get some of that here – and frequent scenes of shouting and frenzy as the undisciplined Somalis fear their dreams of millions of dollars in ransom money are unraveling – there is a stillness to some of the movie’s best moments, as Hanks and Abdi convey a full gamut of feelings with just their faces. And the film’s final scene portrays an emotional meltdown whose rawness might just sear your nerve endings.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS ****
continues at the Odeon, SilverCity, Empire Uni 4, & Westshore.
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