The main thing you should know about Captain Phillips is that it really puts you through the wringer. It’s based on the true 2009 story of the hijacking of a US container ship by Somali pirates, and the Navy Seal rescue mission that ensued — pirates, a word of advice: if you are going to kidnap Tom Hanks, America is simply not going to let you get away with it — and my heart was in my mouth throughout. It is nail-bitingly exciting, even if you know the outcome, and I think I can safely say it’s a better film than the one I thought I was going to see. Or, to put it another way, when I initially saw ‘Captain Phillips’ was about to open my first thought was: ‘Gosh. I wonder who is playing Princess Anne.’ That is still a film I’d go to, probably, but unless Anne ambushes a pirate leader in a ship’s engine room, and holds him with a knife to his throat, I don’t know how it could be more thrilling than this.
This is directed by Paul Greengrass, who made Bourne Supremacy and Bloody Sunday and United 93, and has taken the action-thriller and turned it into something both supremely intelligent and compassionate. (Well done, Paul! Seriously!) The star is Hanks, who plays Phillips, commander of a ship carrying cargo from Oman to Mombasa. Hanks gets it in the neck sometimes, for not doing very much, although what he is actually doing is this: not appearing to do much. World of difference. And it’s this very unforcedness that makes him one of the greatest actors alive, and in the final minutes of this film, he produces something so riveting and extraordinary and true, if he doesn’t receive an Oscar, I’ll eat your hat. (I don’t wear hats, remember, which is why it always has to be yours.)
So it finishes explosively, with that Hanks performance, but opens rather weakly, as it happens. It opens with Captain Phillips leaving his home in Vermont and being driven to the airport by his wife. They talk about their kids, she says things like ‘we live in a dangerous world’ and when he gets out the car it is ‘I love you’ and all that. I suppose this establishes Phillips as nothing special, your average family man going to work, rather than a swashbuckling hero, but it is rather clumsy, as is the way it then cuts to the Somali pirates gathering on the beach and being bullied by their tribal warlords. Quite crude, but once Phillips is on the ship and the pirates are on their way, in little skiffs, we are off, and the film never lets up.
Phillips first notes something coming at him on the ship’s radar. Beep beep, beep beep. ‘I don’t like the look of that,’ says Phillips. Just a beep but, such is Greengrass’s skill, your heart starts to pound. The pirates overcome the roaring seas and the ship’s hose system and board. Phillips, who will sit on his own abject terror until those last moments, instructs the crew to hide out in the engine room, but stays on the bridge, and behind his eyes you can see his brain ticking as it tries to work out: how do I take control of this?
Much of the interplay between characters comes in the form of tense confrontations, and interesting psychological games, between Phillips and the pirate leader, Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi. Abdi, a Somali who had fled Somalia for America and was driving a limo in Minneapolis when Greengrass cast him, is a remarkable presence. With his skeletal head and khat-stained teeth, he exudes menace but, at the same time, allows us to sense his underlying humanity. You feel both his violence and his desperation. The film doesn’t make geopolitical points as such, and doesn’t ever ask us to sympathise with the pirates but, still, we do understand why their lives are a tragedy, and what has brought them to this place.
This is, I suppose, just another ‘ordinary guy caught in extraordinary circumstances’ film, but it is handled with such brilliance, and performed with such brilliance, and filmed with such brilliance — from nervy hand-held shots to aerial views of the huge, rolling sea — it never seems like a cliché. And although the Navy Seal rescue is quite something, it’s Captain Phillips, suddenly registering all he has endured, that will remain in the mind. Tom Hanks has to be one of the greatest actors alive, plus we’d follow him anywhere, and do. If the pirates had captured Ashton Kutcher, say, would anyone have minded as much? No. Probably not.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.