Director: Paul Greengrass
What we see in Captain Phillips is something we rarely see in an action film. If we look at a genre that fills itself with set-pieces, explosions and high gloss slickness, this is almost an anti-action film. Yes there are tense moments of characters in peril (the pirates’ two attempts to board the ship are as exciting as any car chase on film), but this is a movie about high-tension, claustrophobia and real danger set in extreme isolation. Greengrass’ previous tour de force had been the terror of impending doom amongst the passengers on board the doomed flight United 93, but now this film closes in the walls even further, choosing to let the majority of its runtime play out within tiny enclosed spaces both on board the ship and its lifeboat. This feeling of enclosing the antagonists with its hostages, placing both of them in extreme danger, sets the stakes higher and puts as much danger in a look as in a gunshot.
Much has been said about Hanks’ performance, but Abdi’s role as Muse the pirate is equally as impressive. Terrifying in his manic desire to prove himself, pressurised by the pressure to overcome his slight stature, his dominance of the ship is all the scarier for the knowledge that he clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing and, as such, will go to unknown lengths to succeed. We see moments of innocence, glimpses of the boy he still is, but the man he is forcing himself to be is more his idea of how a pirate should behave than anything inherent inside him. This lack of logic and his irrational drive is the perfect counterpoint to Phillips’ (and other later characters’) attempts to reason and negotiate with him.
Almost the entire film plays out on open water, with the ships and boats becoming characters themselves, towering over each other and these minute players. The scale of the whole film becomes all the more underpinned once the external political forces begin to filter in, becoming clear that while this is a story of two men at odds with one another, they are the pawns of two much larger forces. While maybe there is a little too much focus on this (this would be the reason for that missing half star) the magnitude of this Saving Private Ryan-esque mission to rescue Captain Phillips is greatly emphasised for its vast setting.
Make no mistake, Captain Phillips may well be the most exciting film you’ll see in 2013. It is a thrill-ride, an emotional rollercoaster and a show-case of phenomenal talent. Add to this Greengrass’ masterful direction, leading the audience through this tense nightmare but presenting an unbiased case for both sides, and you have one of the finest films you will see all year. In a world that isn’t dominated by franchise movies, this should have received a summer release and been that film everyone was talking about. Instead we had Fast And Furious 6 and the decidedly average Man Of Steel. Go figure. Well at least its late release date will mean it makes a showing at the Oscars.