Film Review: Captain Phillips

Suspenseful and fascinating work from Paul Greengrass

Paul Greengrass's new film about Somali pirates reminded me of Irish republicans. That is, the doomed, huddled activists of his first hit, Bloody Sunday. Pre-Bourne, the bespectacled director recounted this tragedy in a way that was gritty, real and perturbing. Everything about Captain Philips forces us to acknowledge that, however successful his direction of the Bourne franchise, Greengrass is most at home when drawing suspense from the real world.

Those of us unfamiliar with Greengrass's name would certainly recognise his style. Wobbly, over-the-shoulder shots follow characters whose worlds are usually falling down around them.

This formula became iconic with the Bourne series, and any attempt to imitate it, most notoriously with the rebooted Bond franchise, has been instantly called out. Bourne might have made Greengrass's name, but it is Captain Phillips that sees the director wielding his old trademarks with the kind of pathos witnessed in Bloody Sunday.

The team that worked on Captain Phillips is full of quality. Greengrass is supported by Old Vic director Kevin Spacey as his executive producer, with the brilliant Tom Hanks as Phillips. Hanks is, of course, no stranger to retelling real-life tragedies. He was acclaimed for helping to bring the story of Captain Jim Lovell to the screen in Apollo 13, and, in the opening set piece of Saving Private Ryan, we saw Omaha beach through his eyes, in a performance celebrated for its distressing realism. This track record has secured Hanks's reputation as an actor who does angst like nobody else.

The film follows, in typical, shuddery style, the eponymous Captain Richard Phillips. Phillips was captured by pirates in 2009, following their botched attempt to ransack the cargo ship under his command. This isn't Greengrass's first attempt at depicting an actual hijacking, either. United 93 was Greengrass's memorial to the airline passengers who overpowered their captors on 9/11. In much the same way, Greengrass's latest venture retells the story of Phillips’ capture in a way that is artful and sensitive.

We follow Muse, a pirate who violently stakes his claim to lead the assault on Phillips's vessel. Greengrass masterfully parallels the two crews captained by Phillips and Muse. Though clearly worlds apart, both groups become more and more restless about what’s to come and, through the trembling lens, it's hard not to get drawn in.

The few English lines scripted for Muse's crew are a strikingly real part of the film. Revelling in the bravado of holding men at gunpoint, they quote gangster film cliches, maybe learnt from grainy television screens back home. Muse's first line to Phillips - "just business" - chillingly underplays how desperately he needs the loot.

In fact, the most fascinating part of Captain Phillips is the connection drawn between local oppression in Somalia and criminality at sea. On the news, Somali pirates are faceless villains. But in Captain Phillips, we come to see the pirates themselves besieged by their boss back home (another term Muse lifts from his video tape of Goodfellas). This kingpin remains an unseen but palpable influence the pirates throughout, as Phillips's crew pay the price for their frantic plunder.

Captain Phillips should be celebrated as another return by Greengrass to the factual. Surrounded by 24-hour news stations, we become casual spectators to dramatic events like Phillips’ abduction, which I certainly had trouble remembering before watching the film. Greengrass intimately involves us in these real-life disasters in a way that is utterly rare. A welcome return to the genre by the man behind Bourne.

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