Best known his work on the Bourne franchise, director Paul Greengrass has carved out a very specific type of niche for himself. He’s able to taking real-life events and translate them into high-quality thrillers without taking too much poetic license. With United 93, he crafted one of the defining pop culture artifacts of 9/11, recreating the heroic actions of passengers on one fateful flight back in 2001.
In Captain Phillips, Greengrass reunites with regular cinematographer Barry Ackroyd to resurrect the aesthetic of United 93. They tell the story of Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), an American merchant mariner kidnapped by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa in 2009.
If we were to talk about this story in movie-terms, the plot could be likened to that ofAir Force One: a seemingly mild mannered leader has to summon up his resources to fend off hijackers. But where a conventional Hollywood hero would take up arms and murder their captors, Phillips’ strength lies in his level-headed response to the situation. He’s not a glamorous action hero in any way, but his ability to stay calm and talk to the pirates turns out to be the only thing keeping his crew alive.
Shot with his usual frenetic camerawork, Greengrass’ documentary-style editing still works at creating expressive and visceral moments of real tension. Importing another key aspect of United 93, the film takes great pains not to simply dismiss the Somali captors as villains. In the very first scene, we see that Muse, the de facto leader of the bandits, is forced by warlords into piracy. His actions aren’t necessarily excused, but it’s refreshing to see a genre film show a shred of empathy for its villain.
Tom Hanks, an actor too many of us take for granted, delivers his best performance in years despite a shaky New England accent. In fact, this must be the 3rd or 4th Hanks has played a man from that particular corner of the United States (it wasn’t much good in The Polar Express or Catch Me if You Can either). Still, any deficiencies in the dialect department are soon eclipsed by the film’s wisely chosen dependence on Hanks’ physical reactions.
Captain Phillips is about as exciting a movies as you could hope for, with the recreation of his ocean rescue reminding us of the Osama raid in Zero Dark Thirty (another film made with Barry Ackroyd). It works perfectly as an ode to the title character and as a highly polished piece of mainstream cinema.
Captain Phillips is in general release Friday 18 October