As Paul Greengrass is best known for directing Matt Damon in the two Bourne sequels, it’s not a stretch to assume his collaboration with fellow A-list talent Tom Hanks gives us another thrilling work of fiction. While Captain Phillips is indeed one of the most exciting films you’ll see this year, the story it’s based upon is actually as true as they come. Which is lucky, given that Greengrass has produced some of the most moving, heart-pounding and kinetic cinema imaginable when set the task of adapting real-life tales for the screen.
Bloody Sunday, his Hollywood calling card, introduced audiences to the documentary style that gives his films superior authenticity, as handheld cameras get in amongst the action and in his actors’ faces, capturing every fraught emotion. This was then employed to almost overwhelming effect in United 93, a real-time account of the flight hijacked on 9/11 that was bound for the White House until its passengers intervened. Although Captain Phillips is a comparatively smaller story in terms of historical relevance, it still packs such a punch that most viewers will find themselves teetering on the edge of their seats for all but the first 10 of its 134 minutes.
A reenactment of the hijacking of an American container ship by Somali pirates in 2009, there has been talk of Captain Phillips’ theme of globalisation and its often negative consequences. While this might be overstating its ambitions – the film is a far more visceral than intellectual experience – yet it still has enough brains to make it a viscerally superior thriller. Unlike Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, where the demarcation between good and evil characters was so overdone they may as well worn black and white hats, here Greengrass grounds his protagonists in just the right amount of geopolitical context.
The Somali pirates, all played by first-time actors and led brilliantly by Barkhad Abdi, are essentially caught between a rock and a watery place: a poverty-stricken country in the grip of ruthless warlords or the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. But little time is wasted after this fact is established, and the film never shies away from depicting them as the desperate and dangerous men they are. After contrasting their plight with the mundane concerns of Phillips and his wife in post-economic crash America, Greengrass propels us straight into a cat and mouse pursuit, setting pulses racing to a rate at which they remain until well after the credits have rolled.
The casting of movie icon Hanks in the titular role could have been an overly-bright beacon that blinds us from the cast of unknowns, were it not for his reliably everyman qualities slotting perfectly into the story’s gravitas. His interplay with Abdi upholds the film’s humanity throughout, so that by its climax we are left shocked rather than celebratory, much in the same way Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty refused to be triumphalist at its own adrenaline-inducing denouement. With awards season chatter coming as early as Christmas these days, expect to hear Hanks and Greengrass in the frame for yet another astounding work of cinema.
Captain Phillips is in cinemas on October 18