Avast ye! These pirates are swooping aboard the cinemas with nary a peg leg to be seen, but plenty o’ Oscar gold in their sights, mateys. Arrr?
Amidst recent allegations that the real Captain Richard Phillips (portrayed here by Tom Hanks) ignored warnings and took his cargo ship into known pirate waters in April 2009, director Paul Greengrass is more interested in what it takes for someone to attempt to hijack one, and in the case of the titular Phillips, defend it. Captain Phillips recounts the true story of the hijacking of container ship Maersk Alabama by a group of Somali pirates led by the young Muse (Barkhad Abdi). What follows is a tense stand-off between the US Navy and the pirates, as they kidnap Phillips in a claustrophobic lifeboat over a four-day period.
Although not directly commenting on the post-9/11 world or the Gulf War, this is familiar territory for the politically engaged Greengrass. He is careful not to endorse the acts of the often desperate pirates, even if newcomer Abdi is an electrifying presence, but the nature of Billy Ray’s (The Hunger Games, State of Play) screenplay gives us ample time to view the issue from more than two angles. As such, it’s a straightforward tale of human survival, but without a corresponding easy moral compass for viewers. Even the depiction of the military is from a procedural point of view, although the immediacy of the trademark handheld Greengrass-Cam™ and the character focused narrative ensures that this is rarely cold or emotionally removed.
Undoubtedly the film is a performance piece for Hanks, yet with the exception of a few ready-made awards ceremony clips, he delivers a familiar pragmatic down-home everyman version of Phillips that is often hard to separate from the Hanks persona. Abdi gives what could have been a stereotypical character some depth, but other casting choices such as the completely wasted Catherine Keener as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Mrs. Phillips squandered an opportunity for some motivation on the Captain’s side.
A curious chapter from recent history tries valiantly to not praise or damn either side of the coin, and while it is undoubtedly a gripping bit of high seas drama (albeit with a dragging second act), it’s difficult to have an opinion of a film that doesn’t have a strong one of its own.
Captain Phillips is released in Australia on 24 October 2013 from Sony.