Captain Phillips (London Film Festival 2013)
There’s a point in Captain Phillips where the titular character sends an email home to his wife; the subject header is in lowercase, while the body text is formatted in Tahoma with capitals. These small details are part of the drama’s way of ramping up tension, where every minutiae teases something worse is up ahead – while also being slightly exhausting, if you’ve ever watched someone else type an email before.
Real life event films are tricky. The Impossible will likely be my most disliked film of the year, for its racial insensitivity and mutating an 8-year-old natural disaster into a multiplex vehicle. Then again, Dog Day Afternoon is one of my all-time favourites, and that hit cinemas just three years after the real bank robbery.
Fortunately, Captain Phillips is much closer to Dog Day Afternoon in terms of quality, with a claustrophobic plot as a bonus. The biographical thriller details the 2009 incident when a cargo ship was hijacked by four Somali pirates, each incredibly young looking and likely to still be teenagers. They rely on Muse (Barkhad Abdi) as their multilingual leader; he makes clear their motivations are purely financial – or, as he disingenuously calls it, “business”.
When Muse instructs his pirate colleagues (co-pirates?) to toughen up, the line echoes a statement from Captain Phillips himself. Played by Tom Hanks, the ship’s captain leads the negotiation process: a chess game where one has weapons, and the other knows the boat inside-out. The ship shuts down its power; the crew hide in the darkness, leaving the pirates to ruthlessly improvise.
Phillips and Muse have further similarities, which would be a more insightful if it weren’t for some of the more condescending examples (“You... are... more than... a fisherman...”). However, they’re moulded by respective backgrounds. Okay, that’s an obvious point, but there’s something poignant about their verbal duals: Phillips speaks as a political middleman, while Muse’s authoritative dexterity makes him the only figure listened to by both sides.
Paul Greengrass has decades of experience with these types of tense thrillers, and he’s occasionally quite tedious in how he slowly drags out inevitable climaxes. In what is sort of a review of the actual incident, Captain Phillips is strongest in its middle act, with Muse and Phillips sizing each other up.
The captain’s heroic generosity does jar as an awkward screenwriter tool for forcing the audience to support the protagonist (a common trick in Hollywood and, let’s face it, Tom Hanks films.) But, like in Dog Day Afternoon, even the bad guys have a human element: the pirates are barely adults, and complain the West stole their natural resources. When the Navy arrives fully armed, the captain recognises it isn’t so clear who the bully is; Phillips may not fall for Stockholm Syndrome, but in the pirates he spots the part of himself pushed around by authorities.
Captain Phillips is making its European premiere as the London Film Festival’s opening gala screening. More information can be found here.
United States of America
134 mins approx