out of Five
Running time: 133
Impressively directed and superbly written, this is a powerfully gripping real-life thriller with an Oscar-worthy central performance from Tom Hanks.
What's it all about?
Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93), Captain Phillips is based on a true story and stars Tom Hanks as middle-aged Captain Richard Phillips, who says goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener) in Vermont and flies to southern Oman in order to pilot American container ship the Maersk Alabama down along the coast of Somalia to Kenya. However, the ship is captured and boarded by a skiff containing four Somalian pirates lead by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who rejects Phillips' offer of $30,000 in cash in favour of holding out for millions.
When negotiations don't quite pan out the way they'd hoped, the Somalians decide on a different course of action and board one of the ship's lifeboats, taking Phillips with them to act as a hostage. With Navy warships in hot pursuit, tensions flare among the panicked pirates, putting Phillips in great peril.
Hanks is terrific as Captain Phillips, stiff-upper-lipping for all he's worth during the initial attack (he's remarkably calm and polite under pressure), but gradually succumbing to the full terror of his situation, especially when it becomes clear that the Navy aren't exactly there to negotiate. This culminates in a scene that will almost certainly serve as Hanks' Oscar clip, when he's hit by a wave of post-traumatic shock when being questioned by a Naval medical officer; in many ways, it's the most powerfully emotional scene in the film.
That said, Captain Phillips is essentially a fairly passive part, so a lot of the focus on the film is on Barkhad Abdi, who delivers an engaging performance as Muse that's almost sympathetic – the script makes clear that he is expected to answer to ruthless bosses who won't be happy with a mere $30,000 and we see a telling glimpse of his life back in Somalia. There's also strong support from Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali as the other three pirates, though why Catherine Keener signed on as Mrs Phillips is something of a mystery seeing as she's only in the drive-to-the-airport scene.
As with United 93 (also about a real-life hi-jack), Greengrass is excellent at building and maintaining suspense, even when the eventual outcome is common knowledge. As a result, the final act is nail-bitingly tense and the climax is both terrifying and genuinely shocking, all the more so for the knowledge that this actually happened.
Captain Phillips is a pacey and gripping real-life thriller with a strong script and a terrific performance from Tom Hanks that is certain to garner some awards attention come Oscar time. Highly recommended.