Captain Phillips review

The true story of a cargo ship hijacking, Captain Phillips is as good a thriller as you'll see all year, Luke writes...

How bad is that it that halfway through Captain Phillips I started thinking about Under Siege? Paul Greengrass’ latest was given the prestigious honour of opening this year’s London Film Festival, garnering early Oscar buzz on its way, and features yet another sterling Tom Hanks performance at its core. But when it approaches that crucial mid-point – people trapped on a sea vessel, bad men on the hunt, one man trying to stop them – something inside me can’t help but scream, “Where’s Steven Seagal when you need him?”

Maybe that’s just me. Under Siege is a particularly fine entry in the Die Hard-in-something-other-than-a-skyscraper oeuvre. Better certainly than both of the Die Hard-in-the-White House wannabees that have come out this year. But part of me thinks I can’t be the only one. Perhaps this is just one of the hurdles facing filmmakers trying to make serious films nowadays. 

Greengrass has to fight against the diet of action movies our generation has been weaned on – the ones that undercut our sense of danger with a well-timed quip. He has to fight against that reassuring familiarity of the classic man-in-peril storyline – these guys over here are bad, this is your hero, it all works out in the end.

And the types of films Greengrass makes – big, grown-up, challenging, and often costly – would make you think he needs to work within a particular safety zone. Ed Zwick comes to mind as the other director of note trying something similar. But even Zwick seems to have reached a compromise within his films (they all flirt with big messages before settling on a kind of middle ground).

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Greengrass is one of the few mainstream directors taking risks with high budget studio films. And it’s this that makes Captain Phillips as good a thriller as we’re likely to see this year. Perhaps not the Oscar home-run many have written it up to be before they’ve seen it, but a shining example of smart filmmaking from an especially smart filmmaker.  Smart because Greengrass doesn’t do the expected stuff. A less assured director would have resorted to the safety blanket of a cut away. The suffering wife at home, frenzied news crews capturing the unfolding drama. But he doesn’t. And there’s a sense he’s having fun not doing that. Greengrass sets it up beautifully – Catherine Keener playing down-to-earth spouse in the early scenes, a quick email home after Hanks’ first brush with danger, and then that’s it. A few minutes of screen time and Keener’s done, never to be seen again. Greengrass wants to keep us all at sea with Hanks’ Phillips. And so a story about a man at the mercy of Somali pirates feels achingly real. Tense because we feel stuck there with him, dramatic because there’s very little flag-waving heroism here. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd doesn’t allow for any big hero camera shots – he shoots close, his camera constantly moving, often awkwardly behind our main protagonist’s head. It never lets us settle.

Billy Ray’s screenplay follows suit. After the ship’s first run-in with pirates sees Phillips ward them off through some ingenious subterfuge, he’s greeted not by a thankful, cheering crew, but a group of men worried for their lives. 

It’s in these details that the film’s true strength shows. Greengrass isn’t a conventional filmmaker, even when contained within the conventions of his genre. What other filmmaker could have made United 93? Or maybe that should be – what other filmmaker could have made a film as brilliantly free of finger-pointing as United 93? There’s a similar marvel at the heart of Captain Phillips. Those bad guys hunting out our trapped crew at the film’s mid-point? Greengrass doesn’t paint them as broadly as that. The film’s supposed big bad – a Somali pirate by the name of Muse – is anything but. 

Hanks will rightly gain countless plaudits for his Captain Richard Phillips. He’s grounded and believable, conveying his desperation and heroics not through big speeches but a terrific nervous physicality. And he gets one absolutely killer scene, a two minute tour de force more affecting than most films of this type manage in two hours. 

But newcomer Barkhad Abdi as Muse is possibly better. When he locks eyes with Hanks’ Phillips, it has the dramatic heft of Pacino and De Niro facing off in Heat. Abdi’s Muse is the flip side to Hank’s Phillips, a man driven to do what he must to survive. Far from demonising him, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray make us feel for him. A kind of sympathy for the devil. 

It’s impressive stuff. Even more so given that by the film’s close, Greengrass has made me forget all about Steven Seagal and a chef called Casey Rybeck. 

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Captain Phillips is out in UK cinemas on the 18th October.

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4 out of 5