Words: Josh Powlesland
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky
Running time: 134 mins
British director Paul Greengrass is well known for his high profile dramatisations of real life events in films, the most recent of which being United 93, a drama based on the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 during 9/11. It was no surprise therefore when he was billed to direct the film adaptation of the Maersk Alabama hijacking of 2009, with Tom Hanks starring as the eponymous Captain Phillips alongside newcomer Barkhad Abdi as pirate captain Muse.
The biopic opens with two brief mirroring scenes showing Phillips and Muse leaving their homes behind to go to sea with blatantly different intentions. The jump from a comfortable American home to the slums of Somalia shows a stark contrast, and sets up a major aspect of the film that works so well – it would have been very easy for Greengrass to portray the Somali pirates as generic villains from the start, but instead he opted for showing the desperation which forced them into piracy. This resulted in a much more engrossing story rather than the two-dimensional villains we so often see in the thriller genre.
Opting for realism, Greengrass chose to shoot the majority of the film at sea on a container ship identical to the Maersk Alabama on which the hijacking actually took place, and it’s clear that there has been painstaking attention to detail made in recreating the event. A combination of this realism and frequent use of hand-held cameras creates a claustrophobic atmosphere on the ship that consistently increases tension as the film progresses, and the decision to have the pirates speak predominantly Somali rather than just accented English furthers this exponentially.
Because of the nature of this story, there isn’t really much of a cast – only Phillips and Muse get any form of character development with all of the other characters almost fading into the background. In most films this would be a problem, but the calibre of acting Hanks and Abdi bring to the film is so high that it more than makes up for this fact. As the captain of the Somali pirates, Barkhad Abdi is terrifyingly believable while being threatening but also manages to put across Muse’s desperation and lack of options almost to the point of sympathy. Tom Hanks delivers a very believable protagonist convincingly ranging from confident captain to broken hostage, and ends the film with arguably the best 30 minutes of acting I’ve seen all year.