As it was only a few years ago, it’s likely that you’ll remember the events that ‘Captain Phillips’ is based on. In 2009 the cargo ship of Captain Rich Phillips and his crew was boarded by four young Somali pirates. Events escalated, leading to Phillips being captured by the Somalis and enduring a hostage situation on the escaping lifeboat.
At the time, the news reportage of these real hijackings and the simultaneous portrayal of pirates as fun adventurers in Western cinema couldn’t have felt more at odds with each other. It is pure conjecture, but I wonder whether there is something about the word ‘pirate,’ and our cultural associations with it, that stops us from truly understanding the severity of the issue. Perhaps, by wrapping it up in an entertaining Hollywood production, ‘Captain Philips’ will raise some awareness about real piracy and the global economic issues that surround it.
At its core the film is a survival thriller, and director Paul Greengrass grips us by pumping out heart thumping tension. The pacing is consistent, even in the quite lengthy third act. In comparison to ‘Argo,’ another recent film based on a real international hostage incident, ‘Captain Phillips’ plays with the audience’s sense of hope and fear with more intensity. There is, however, the feeling that there has been a small bit of miss-marketing and some action fans may be expecting a modern ‘Under Siege,’ but this is not an action film. There are plenty of exciting sequences, but the title protagonist is not a one man army. It’s a portrayal of a real man’s attempts at escape and painful endurance. Despite his situation, there is plenty of humanity and sympathy from Phillips which, unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks expresses excellently, bringing a heart breaking performance as the film progresses.
Greengrass’ experience of handling true tales such as this one shines through, as the wider picture is also explored without any deviation or affect on pacing. The piracy issue is handled in the best possible way: without unnecessary blame and with plenty of room for interpretation and discussion.
Early on, the film pictures a poverty stricken fishing village in Somalia and the conditions of recruiting pirates.
There’s no demonisation of the Somalis as a ’threat’ to the Western economy or suffocating portrayal of them as forced victims. There are subtle references to an organised crime figurehead and a hierarchy of power, but they’re explored in appropriate doses; enough to spark interest but without providing overly simplistic answers.
There are moments between Philips and his lead captor, Muse, that explore the relationship between Africa and America. In one scene Muse tells Phillips about his ambition to go to America, imagining the country as that iconic land of opportunity. Unfortunately, no economy is stable and even work in the Western world is not guaranteed. This is subtly acknowledged by the captain himself at the start of the film, in conversation with his wife. This insight into Muse’s aspirations makes him an interesting character as he is brutal and dislikable but also desperate and sympathetic.
There has been some controversy surrounding the portrayal of the title man himself, with Phillips’ real life crew describing actions he took as reckless and even blaming him for the hijacking. Authenticity is always a point of contention when it comes to films based on true stories and, in this particular case, most of it probably stems from the use of Phillips’ own memoirs as the main source for the plot. That said, I didn’t feel that he was overly portrayed as an American hero.
Despite acknowledging his quick wittedness and bravery in the face of adversity, and despite being called ‘Captain Phillips’, the film is not just about Captain Phillips. It is an intelligent thriller that will rock your emotions whilst subtly engaging you in the wider context of the piracy issue.
Released in the UK on October 16th 2013.