Captain Phillips (2013) Review

When I first saw a trailer for “Captain Phillips”, I wasn’t bowled over. I only had a passing familiarity with the real events the film was based on, and the lacklustre title combined with an underwhelming trailer gave me the impression of a Discovery Channel special with talking heads and stagey reconstructions, stretching out thirty minutes of actual content into two hours of repeatedly recapped programming.

But a friend persisted in championing it and eventually there came a choice between finally capitulating and seeing “Captain Phillips” or going to see “Delivery Man”. Having just endured “The Internship”, it was a no-brainer and I now find myself also indebted to Vince Vaughan’s lack of range because without the prospect of having to sit through another film where he plays the exact same character, I would never have gone to see Paul Greengrass’ absorbing thriller.

Far from being a documentary style, dry retelling of the experiences of the attempted hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, Director Paul Greengrass has crafted an enthralling, tense high seas adventure which works as a straight-up thriller as well as a thought-provoking true-life story. Despite the very modern trappings of the story, there is still an element of swashbuckle here, with Captain Phillips using his skill and experience to first see off the pirates then thwart their attempted takeover of the ship. Based on real events, this is not really a biopic: we learn very little about the captain and crew of the Maersk Alabama or the pirates themselves beyond seeing how they cope with the situations which arise. Instead, the story is king: we are witness to the events and the people involved in them and from the initial skirmishes to the boarding of the ship and through to the kidnap and escape in the lifeboat, the film powers along with confidence, fuelled by stellar performances and never once sagging despite its lengthy two and a quarter-hour running time.

Oscar-nominated Barkhad Adbi is superb as the complex, conflicted pirate leader Abduwali Muse, infusing his performance with an intensity and quiet desperation while Faysal Ahmed’s Najee provides a combustible, vicious element to the pirate crew, threateneing to spiral out of control at any minute. However, this is Tom Hanks’ film and he is at the absolute top of his game here. His performance as Phillips, especially in the post-rescue breakdown scene, is so full of raw, genuine emotional honesty that it’s baffling  he was overlooked for the Best Actor Oscar this year while Christian Bale’s showy, insincere (and ultimately costume-driven) performance in “American Hustle” got the nod. The work Hanks does in the last ten minutes of “Captain Phillips” is the best performance this reviewer has seen all year.

Ignoring the murmurs that the story portrays Captain Phillips more favourably than real life events and judging it on its merits as a film, this as a superb seafaring thriller, based on actual events and populated by expert actors giving their very finest performances.