Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Addirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M Ali, Michael Cherums, Catherine Keener
Running Time: 134 mins
The lowdown: Batten down the hatches for this nail-biting biopic, boasting an Oscar-baiting return to form from everyone’s favourite everyman Tom Hanks. Recreating the five days in April 2009 when Somali pirates boarded US container ship Maesk Alabama and took its Captain Richard Phillips hostage. United 93 director Paul Greengrass once again crafts a taut thriller around a real-life crisis without sacrificing authenticity or humanity.
The verdict: Anyone expecting an Uncle Sam vs. The Savages set-up will be disappointed. Tub-thumping political agendas are resisted. The pirates regard the Alabama and its Captain not as the enemy, but a financial opportunity floating past their doorstep. “It’s just business” the terrified seamen are ‘reassured’, “no Al-Qaeda here”.
Opening scenes juxtapose Africa-bound family man Phillips (Hanks) bidding a tense goodbye to his wife Andrea (a cameo’ing Catherine Keener) with his Somali counterpart Muse (Barkhad Abdi) picking the three-man hijack crew that Phillips and his unarmed personnel will soon be facing.
Terrifying they may be, but Greengrass and co. take time to present the imminent hijackers as desperate men rather than shadowy figures of fear.
Captain Phillips divides into two parts; the ‘what-else-could-they-possibly-do?’ attack on the cargo ship, the Alabama crew using everything at hand to repel their resilient invaders, and the clammy ‘five men in a lifeboat’ claustrophobia of Phillip’s confinement after capture.
Greengrass and long-time cinematographer Barry Ackroyd employ hand-held and shoulder-mounted cameras to give actors’ free reign of the tight spaces available and are rewarded with naturalistic performances, particularly from the Somali newcomers.
All four are impressive, but in his acting debut as pirate captain Muse Barkhad Abdi is phenomenal. His whisper-thin frame accentuates his hungry conviction as he eyeballs Hollywood’s finest with astonishing confidence.
Hanks has played the role of an ordinary man up against extreme odds many times, but shot through Greengrass’s unsentimental lens, he has never appeared this emotionally raw and exposed before. As Phillips’ chance of escape narrows and his desperation becomes dangerous the fifty-something Hanks displays incredible physical stamina and intense vulnerability.
After the turgid Larry Crowne and the messy Marmite of Cloud Atlas, this is a timely reminder that he still has the chops to elicit our admiration, surprise, and in the devastating final scenes of this superior movie, quiet awe.