Thursday, 20 March 2014

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (2013)

Starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi

Directed by Paul Greengrass

As this film is based on the book (and true story) "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea" by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, it's fairly safe to say it's no spoiler to reveal that Phillips survives the ordeal depicted in this film.  But the big questions are how did he survive?  What transpired along the way?  Therein lies the glory, and amazing, gripping telling of this film, one of the tensest, most dramatic films that I've seen in a long while.

In 2009, Captain Richard Phillips takes command of the MV Maersk Alabama, a US registered container ship, and sets off on a voyage from Oman in the Middle East down the coast of Africa.  This is the first time he has sailed in this particular ship, so the crew are unfamiliar with his methods, which are somewhat rigourous.  Early in the voyage he notices that the doors and hatches are unsecured, and orders several security drills.   

Meanwhile, in a village in Somalia, Abduwali Muse (Abdi) is ordered by a group of mercenaries working for a warlord named Garaad to go out and find something to provide money for said warlord.  The local young men all clamour for a spot on the mission.

The "pirates" duly close in on the ship, and despite efforts to see them off, they manage to board the cargo vessel.  A tense standoff immediately ensues with Muse telling Phillips "I'm the Captain now" and demanding millions of dollars in ransom.  Phillips has told the crew to hide below decks, barring the crew members serving on the bridge.  He arranges for them to slow the engines, pretending that the ship is crippled, and offers the money from the bridge's safe - $30,000.  This does not satisfy Muse and his band of raiders.

What ensues is an utterly enthralling game of cat and mouse, as the pirates attempt to find the crew, fix the ship, and continue to demand their ransom.  Phillips, for his part, attempts to disrupt their plans, protect his crew, and find a way to freedom.  The brilliance of the film lies in the even-handed treatment of the antagonists and protagonists.  The Somali pirates are shown to be under duress from the warlord, so one can understand their motives for taking such desperate actions.  Morally, it's ambiguous.  But likewise, we can fully sympathise with Phillips' desperate attempts to look after his crew.  With the US Navy fast closing in, the pirates, in frustration, decide to kidnap Phillips and they cast off in one of the ships' lifeboats, setting up a nail-biting final act in which the Captain comes within inches of death.

As one would expect from director Paul Greengrass, pioneer of the documentary-style "shaky cam" look in such films as "United 93" and "The Bourne Supremacy", the film is completely immersive.  It feels at times as though one is a part of the action, or at least as if this is a documentary.  There were some reports on its cinematic release that moviegoers were experiencing sea-sickness due to the camera motion!  It's also extremely exciting and absorbing.

The performances are uniformly superb - Hanks in particular has seldom been better, the final scene, dialogue free, is so, so powerful; and the previously unknown Abdi is wonderful as Muse (deservedly winning a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor), but they are also well supported by the ensemble cast of crew members (great to see "Twin Peaks"' Chris Mulkey on board!)

It's emotionally draining - I was stuck to my seat as the end credits rolled - but it's also thrilling, dramatic, skillfully played and directed.  All in all one of the best films I've seen in quite some time.


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