LFF 2013: ‘Captain Phillips’ review

The first British director to open the London Film Festival since Kevin Macdonald back in 2006, Paul Greengrass shakes off the memories of Jason Bourne with new nail-biter Captain Phillips (2013), a true story of piracy and stoic heroism on the high seas off the African mainland. Starring Tom Hanks as the captain in question and based upon the 2009 Somali pirate hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama, Greengrass’ latest is a baggy but brutal thriller, leading its audience on a marathon tightrope walk across shark-infested waters. Bolstered by a fine central performance from its star, this is gun-toting vérité at close to its very best.

Leaving his wife Andrea (a fleeting Catherine Keener) and unseen children for another long stint working abroad, Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) jets off to Oman to pilot the Alabama as its commanding officer, leading it through the treacherous international waters off the Somali coast. Boarded by pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and two fellow AK47-carrying hijackers after an exhausting cat-and-mouse chase, Phillips is taken hostage as collateral, with the young Somalis threatening to execute the Massachusetts-born merchant mariner if their ransom demands aren’t met. As a standoff between the increasingly desperate pirates and a nearby US Navy taskforce intensifies, Phillips’ life hangs precariously in the balance.

Whilst Tobias Lindholm’s comparable Danish drama A Hijacking – also coincidentally released in the UK this year – largely dealt with the boardroom politics behind the curtains of the international shipping industry, Captain Phillips spends far more time fleshing out the motivations of its ostensible antagonists than it does playing with figures. Jumping between Phillips and his crew pre-hijack aboard the Alabama, and Muse’s band of Somali fishermen turned pirates planning their skiff-based assault, Greengrass once again illustrates his mastery of multi-strand narratives. Phillips, cautious and pragmatic, runs drills with his team, whilst Muse and company bemoan their lot and the greed of those around them. Abdi and Hanks especially carry the weight of their respective roles extremely well, holding the interest in between the film’s numerous flashpoints.

With 75% of Captain Phillips’ ever-so bloated runtime taking place on the open ocean, there are moments where Greengrass’ latest begins to lag in pace – an issue that never really arose in Lindholm’s more sprightly A Hijacking. However, though the latter may benefit from a shorter stay, the former easily eclipses its Danish compatriot in terms of cinematic spectacle. With director of photography Barry Ackroyd once again behind the camera, this dynamic dramatisation rolls and lurches to the rhythm of the waves, only rarely offering its titular character and spellbound audience a moment of rest-bite. Hanks is utterly believable as Captain Phillips’ endearing everyman, but it’s Greengrass’ own masterful affinity with suspense that proves to be the real star of the show.

The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Daniel Green