Synopsis: The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years
I don’t think “easy going” is a phrase Paul Greengrass is familiar with. He is a director that deals almost exclusively in sustained, palpable tension and close quarters action. It was a style of film making that he utilised to startling effect in the second and third Bourne movies, and was undoubtedly a big influence on the grittier, grimier style of the recent Daniel Craig Bonds.
It’s also fair to say that Greengrass loves a real life hero. Not just a heroic character. But a hero with character. Someone whose heroism comes from an unexpected place within them, and whose decisions are driven by fear, self preservation and raw adrenaline rather than machismo or posturing. Having tackled the Bloody Sunday massacre and the events that unfolded upon United Airlines flight 93 on September 11th 2001, Greengrass’s latest foray into the world of the everyperson thrust unwittingly into turmoil focuses on the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years. More specifically it focuses on the actions of the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), and his cat and mouse relationship with his Somali captor’s boyish leader. Initially seen to be cold, standoffish and anal about ship security, it is ultimately his paranoia and planning for pirates down the Somali straight that prepared his crew for their life changing event.
Greengrass wisely chooses to tell the two stories that exist behind the events in 2009; the first is the documented timeline of actions from captors, hostages and rescuers that unfolded between the 8th and 12th April 2009 aboard the MV Maersk Alabama. This is the story that contains the action, the adrenaline and the driving tension that exists throughout the 2 hours and 14 minutes. The second story is the one that would have been easy to gloss over, trivialise or caricature. That being the social, political, economical and geographical factors that compel young Somali men to risk their lives hijacking multi-hundred thousand tonne ships with crews that outnumber them 5 or 6 to 1. That is not to say that Captain Phillips excuses or condones their actions. But it recognises through a series of brief exchanges between pirate leader Aduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and Phillips that this is not just a job. It’s their only choice. One where the boys who risk their lives to commit these acts in exchange for millions of dollars in ransom money, can’t afford to put shoes on their feet or keep roofs on their houses. While the Warlords who dictate that they commit the acts live lives of abundant riches and power. As Muse rightly points out, we all have bosses.
For all of Greengrass’s excellent direction though, this is Tom Hanks’s film and he owns every moment of it that he is on screen. Unlike his other top end A-list peers like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and to some extent De Niro and Pacino, Hanks has the ability to morph so perfectly into the character he is playing that you forget you are watching one of the most famous faces on the planet. It is testament to his talent to act natural rather than act, and upon reflection it is a trait that follows through a series of outstanding roles over the last 30 years. As Captain Richard Phillips, Hanks is every inch the stand offish leader of his crew of navigators, engineers and ship’s hands. He is meticulous and focused on his one major task. Get the ship to where it needs to go safely, unload and get back. His uptight attitude doesn’t win him friends but when the moment comes that was 200 years in the waiting it is this same attitude and clarity of thought that always makes you think he has the upper hand over his hot headed and ill managed captors. Problem being they are the ones holding the AK47s. It is a performance, that for the final 3 minutes alone, should warrant Hanks bothering the Academy come February. He is also is matched for intensity by his co-star Abdi, a former limousine driver with no formal training or experience in acting. It is a self assured and captivating performance and one that I hope leads award recognition and ultimately more work for him.
The handling of the action, the tone and the stifling tension at times felt similar to Zero Dark Thirty. It was the handling of the divisive subject matter though that drew the greatest comparison to Kathryn Bigelow’s epic take on the CIA’s chasing and killing of Bin Laden (You can read my thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty here for a little more context). While it would be hard to see anyone agreeing with piracy, or failing to sympathise with the actions of Phillips in trying to preserve not only the lives of his men, but also of his captors, the film will undoubtedly draw criticism, or at least murmurings of discontent, from those that will see it as another jingoistic, US Navy Seal back slapping show of American awesomeness disguised as socially aware, even handed cinema. There will also be those who think it is too sympathetic on the Somali pirates and is not nearly backslappy enough. And this is because, much like Bigelow, Greengrass decided to tell a story as it happened, providing an insight into both sides of the aisle, and allowing the audience to decide whether they felt with all the facts at hand that the outcome was justified.
Whatever your stance on he politics of the film, it remains tense from start to finish, with one of the most satisfyingly honest endings to a movie I have seen since Zero Dark Thirty.
Conclusion: Taught, tense and as gritty as you would expect from a Greengrass hostage movie on the water. Expect this to duke it out with Gravity come awards season.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed