Adrift on a sea of terror

Aubrey Malone enjoys a tense sea-bound thriller

Captain Phillips (12A)
Even if you didn’t know this was directed by Paul Greengrass, the man who gave us Flight 93, that engrossing film about the 9/11 passengers who fought back against the hijackers of their plane, you might have been able to guess it from the somewhat similar goings-on here.

Based on a true story, it’s a ferociously tense (and, at the end, tremendously moving) portrayal of the hijacking of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia for a ransom of $10 million in 2009. In the course of it the captain, played by Tom Hanks, was taken hostage by the pirates on a lifeboat after frustrating their attempts to take over the ship itself.

Greengrass manages to keep the drama at a very high level throughout, thanks mainly to the drumbeat quality of the soundtrack and the almost constant shouting of the pirates at one another, and at Hanks.


Their leader, Muse, is played by an untrained actor called Barkhad Abdi who gives a performance of such intensity he should be signed up by a major studio immediately. He’s so fiercely involved in the action, alternating between threatening behaviour and grim humour, a lot of the time you feel you’re watching a particularly brutal documentary rather than fiction.

This ‘fly on the wall’ quality becomes particularly intriguing when Hanks tries to outwit his captors to see if there’s any weakness in them he can exploit to his advantage.

Mr Ordinary

If it was Bruce Willis, he would probably have reduced them all to the sum of their component parts. Harrison Ford would no doubt have employed some ingenious diversion tactic to foil them. But this is Tom Hanks, Mr Ordinary. An actor in the more conventional tradition of stars like James Stewart or Gary Cooper: the Mr Deeds who didn’t go to town, the Mr Smith who didn’t go to Washington.

If Willis or Ford weren’t available and you found yourself in the eye of a storm, you’d settle for Hanks as a second best, wouldn’t you

“There’s gotta be something more than fishing or kidnapping people that you can do,” he says to one of the pirates at one point, drawing the poignant response: “Maybe in America…maybe in America.” This is the essence of the tragedy underlying the hijacking: the desperation of a Third World culture looking for a taste of the American dollar to shore against the ruins of their own impoverishment. 

But sociology isn’t Greengrass’ brief. He’s more interested in telling a story, bringing a crisis to its conclusion. We know it will result in the death of the terrorists (or Hanks, or all of them) especially when the Navy Seals are called in. 

Forensic precision

We should remember it was the Seals who took Osama bin Laden out. I’m not sure exactly how they did it but from reports I’ve read it seems to have been executed with the same forensic precision used in the climax here, which reminded me of the conclusion of Dog Day Afternoon all those years ago. (That film seems positively quaint in contrast to what we get here). 

The only blemish on it for me was Hanks’ accent, which veers from ‘Deep South’ Phillips to ‘Middle American’ Tom about as much as the Maersk Alabama does on the Somali coastline. 

The 12A cert reflects the fact that there’s violence, or the threat of it, in most scenes.