Captain Phillips is based on a true story, but serious questions have been raised about the veracity of the events portrayed in both the eponymous gentleman’s book on the subject and this film. For the sake of this review, I am only talking about what happened in the film. The relationship of the film to what actually happened doesn’t matter for my purposes here. So…

Let me briefly set the scene. Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a family man who captains merchant vessels around the world. He’s been employed to take the Maersk Alabama from Oman to Kenya, sailing through waters off the coast of Somalia, an area known for hijackings. I think you can see where this is going.

If you didn’t know going in, you’d pretty rapidly realise this is a Paul Greengrass film based on the shaky-cam documentary style. It’s something Greengrass has used consistently in his career, through the Bourne films, United 93 and Green Zone, and it is entirely appropriate here, both generating a level of reality for the viewer and a feeling of ‘being there’. The style brings both urgency and tension to proceedings.

Another trait of Greengrass’ is even-handedness and again that is present and correct. Early in proceedings we check in with the hijackers to understand their motivations and background. It’s important to see these events as products of the worlds surrounding the men involved. The hijackers don’t choose this life for a life of adventure, it is because it is the only option open to them and humanising them in this way adds depth that would be missing from many other films. Indeed, for the most part the most remarkable performances stem from Barkhad Abdi, as the lead pirate, and his small crew.

The title of the film, and the general media narrative, might present Phillips as a hero but actually I’d argue that he makes some naïve decisions. This is an ordinary man under-prepared for some extraordinary circumstances who tries to make the best fist of a bad situation. He stumbles his way through with some good judgement and some bad judgement. It’s an admirable performance from Hanks, and one entirely without ego, but it’s one that takes on a whole new level when we reach the post-script. I shan’t say anything more about that, except to say that it is something I have never before seen on screen and is wholly believable and in keeping with events that have gone before.

As for the film as a whole, were it not based on real events, I would have serious trouble believing the way it unfolds. Again, keeping in check what I say so as not to ruin the experience, the developments seem very Hollywood, but these are elements which are undisputed by all involved.

Ultimately, the film is a success, but it raises an interesting comparison with a Danish film from earlier this year, A Hijacking. That film is a step-by-step procedural for how these situations ‘normally’ go, whereas Captain Phillips presents the extreme end of events. Ultimately, I am more interested with the psychology of the processes, how to deal with the people involved in such heightened circumstances and the effects they can have on those caught in the middle, something which is central A Hijacking. That film lacked the understanding of the captors and their background but ultimately was the more interesting movie. Captain Phillips is the more thrilling, undoubtedly, but these are closer to the thrills of a rollercoaster, while A Hijacking is the more interesting and enlightening study and, for me, that gives it the slight edge.

B+

Film Length: 2hrs 14mins – Feels Like: 2hrs 10 mins