When someone says ‘pirate,’ what’s the first thing you think of? Swashbuckling mateys on deck? “Walk the plank, ye scallywag”? “Why’s all the rum gone”? Pirates are seen more as colourful caricatures than terrifying threats in today’s society and while some people believe piracy to be a practice that died out long ago, it is in fact still a very real threat that plagues the waters of the ocean today. Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips” concerns itself with the reality of contemporary piracy and the fact that, despite what films like “Treasure Island” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” have led us to believe, pirates are far from the friendly, handsome faces we’ve become accustomed to.
Out on Open Water…
“Captain Phillips” tells the incredible true story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) Captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo freighter that was hijacked by Somali pirates in early 2009, and his struggle to defend his ship and its crew against a band of vicious pirates seeking to profit from its cargo. It is a story of fear and courage, danger and survival, and life or death.
One of the Year’s Best
“Captain Phillips” deserves much praise in many areas, particularly in its direction. Greengrass creates an aura of realism in each scene and he gets the best performances out of his cast, crew and pirates alike. Tom Hanks delivers a captivating and truly engaging performance as the eponymous Captain; he presents himself with shrewd authority to his crew and unfaltering composure to the pirates. His ability to appear resolute while still maintaining a level of anxiety is what made his performance one of the best I’ve seen all year. He is playing the role of a man who has actually been in that situation, staring down merciless pirates who would kill him and his crew like it was nothing if it meant achieving a profit. The sheer dynamic between the ship’s crew and the pirate crew is remarkable as we have two portraits: one of cooperation and civility and one of competition and poverty.
You’d Swear They Were the Real Thing
The actors playing the pirates were absolutely phenomenal. There was not one scene where I told myself, “oh, they’re just actors.” The actors (all of whom have never had a film role before) look, sound and even behave as pirates would. The film shows us that because of the poverty that plagues Africa, most able-bodied men must resort to violent motives to make a living for themselves and their families. And with a boat, an engine and an AK-47, their options reduce them to a single way of life: piracy. This, I believe, lent them a certain level of humanity and divorced them from the common notion that “they do it for fun.” They do it to survive.
The film features a very strong opening act and the scene in which the pirates chase and board the Alabama was one of the most nail-bitingly intense scenes I’ve seen this year. I often chide the use of shaky-cam but here Greengrass uses it almost as part of the narrative, giving scenes an uncomfortably-real feel. The film’s third act is just as strong as the first as it sees the US Navy enter the fracas and delivers a powerful performance by Hanks as the pirates take him captive in the ship’s emergency lifeboat, alternating the cinematography between wide, spacious shots of the ocean to the cramped and claustrophobic conditions of the lifeboat and its malicious occupants. Though the film’s second act is a little underwhelming in comparison to the first, it still manages to surprise you here and there. It is the film’s final 15 minutes which I believe were its strongest, with Hanks delivering a heart-wrenching performance which sails us away into the credits of this true-story masterpiece.
Paul Greengrass has definitely made waves with “Captain Phillips.” He has taken one of the most inspiring and courageous stories in recent times and, while staying quite faithful to the events of the story, manages to subject the audience to a picture of the awful reality one brave human being had to endure. Everything about this film left an impression on me (in a good way, of course) and though piracy still runs rampant today, it is a relief to know there are still heroes out there, unwilling to succumb to fear in the face of death. I salute you, Captain Richard Phillips.