Captain Phillips

Art & Culture

Paul Greengrass has previous history when it comes to creating excruciatingly tense drama out of real life events (see United 93), so it comes as no surprise that his latest film about a tanker being hijacked by Somali pirates is another exercise in nail-biting. And Tom Hanks comes up trumps as the captain of the ship (and the title)

We see him first as he leaves home with wife Catherine Keener on his way to the small local airport in Vermont from where he will leave on his trip to Oman. They discuss the everyday anxieties of life, with children growing up in an uncertain world. 

The next thing we know he’s taking charge of a cargo ship, Maersk Alabama, going from Oman to Kenya with a heavy load of containers. He’s a commercial sailor, and the crew are simply guys who do their jobs and don’t expect the Somali inquisition.The Somalis, meanwhile, are seen preparing to attack the ship, under instructions from a local warlord who demands his tribute. These ex-fishermen, with no fish to catch after the fleets of the world have swept the ocean floor clean, live in a lawless country where hijacking a ship is both an adventure and a source of healthy income, where nothing else is available. 

The showdown is set. Large slow moving undefended tanker, versus one small, determined and mobile boat, plus crew, and the tension is only just beginning. And tension is really what this film is about. Although Greengrass is even-handed enough to let us see where the Somalis come from, and to allow them to speak for themselves in their justification of their actions, this is not an exercise in Third World compassion. They carry guns, shout a lot, and sometimes even roll their eyes. They may not be classic Hollywood terrorists., but they are the source of the danger to our hero.

And if dramatic tension is the name of the game, then it is entirely successful. From fairly early on, until the very end, the film keeps the audience in a state of nervous uncertainty. We have a fairly good idea of what’s going to happen, but the process of watching it unfold is intrinsically tense; at least in the hands of Greengrass. His fluid camera, crosscutting between locations and his ability to make sure that we always know where a is in relation to b and c are crucial to sustaining the heightened atmosphere, along with a background soundtrack that suggest rather than emphasises the mood.

And as I say, Hanks is on top form. He is not a heroic figure, or even an especially sympathetic one. His crew are not attached to him – why should they be?, they’ve never met him before – but he is a character who we, the audience, can empathise with, wondering what we would do in the circumstances in which he finds himself. The gradual but inexorable wearing down of his fortitude is one of the most impressive parts of a film which is much to be recommended for anyone who wants their brains to be engaged as well as their pulse.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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