This is a film that could have gone wrong incredibly easily. In the wrong hands, the story of Captain Richard Phillips being taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009 could have been made into just another run of the mill, cathartic action film, hero-worshiping Phillips and demonising the pirates. Thankfully, this film is in the hands of Paul Greengrass, who turns the film into one of the most intense thrillers to be released this year.
Since the plot of the film is known to most people, I won’t go into that much detail. The film concerns the capture of the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009 and the efforts made by Captain Richard Phillips to keep the pirates from harming the crew of the ship. This is what takes up the first 2 acts of the film and the film is incredibly intense during these scenes as we wonder whether or not the pirates will find the crew. In the third act though, the pirates take Phillips hostage in a lifeboat and during this time, the Navy gets involved trying to rescue Phillips, peacefully at first before a Navy SEAL team arrives. This part of the film is worth the price of admission alone. The tension of these scenes is incredibly high and we never forget just how much danger Phillips is in. What I love about this film is that it shows the mindset of the pirates, opening the film by showing the poor living conditions of the pirates and how they were so desperate for money that they were willing to resort to piracy. This continues throughout the film, with one of the pirates being injured because he’s too poor to own a pair of shoes. The film makes the pirates three dimensional characters, something that a lesser film would have avoided. I also love how the focus of the film stays firmly in the water once the ship is captured. Again, a lesser film would have done a lot of scenes with Phillip’s family worried for his safety and watching news reports but Greengrass and writer Billy Ray know that this would distract from the main focus of the film, the interactions between Phillips and the pirates.
This is helped by fantastic acting across the board. Whilst the entire cast is excellent there are only 2 people I want to talk about. Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Hanks gives a career best performance here, easily up there with his work in Cast Away, Saving Private Ryan and Cloud Atlas. His intelligence in knowing how to best slow the pirates down, keep the crew safe and create the right conditions for his escape are on full display but he never lets us forget just how much fear Phillips is feeling. The standout though is Abdi as the lead pirate. You can tell right from the start that he’s a threat and he’s willing to do whatever he need to to get his money. At the same time, he shows the desperation he feels over being in this situation, a greater fear for his boss and the reluctance he has to kill, even in the face of his more psychotic crew member wanting Phillips dead. Whenever Hanks and Abdi are on screen together, the film comes alive and thankfully, most of the film is them on screen together.
The direction by Paul Greengrass is also excellent. Very few people can make shaky cam work and have it add to the overall film and Greengrass is one of those few. The shaky cam enhances the documentary style to the film, putting the audience right on the boat with the characters. This is especially well utilised in the scenes of the crew of the Alabama trying to prevent the pirates from boarding and Phillips’ rescue at the very end of the film. These are some of the most intense scenes in a film this year, aided by just how good the direction from Greengrass is.
Overall, Captain Phillips is an incredible thriller. The writing helps make the pirates fully formed characters and keeps the focus of the film where it needs to be. Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi are incredible and the direction by Paul Greengrass helps add to the overall intensity of the film. This is one of the best thrillers of the year and comes highly recommended.
My Rating: 5/5