Days are shortening, nights are lengthening, the trees are bare and the slight hint of a Christmas advert is threatening our television screens. In a cinematic context this can only mean one thing, awards season is almost upon us. It is that strange time of the year when certain films are released that carry with them that mysterious and ethereal weight known as ‘buzz’. For myself, this ‘buzz’ tag means going to see a lot of new releases that I usually would not, sometimes to due lack of immediate interest, sometimes due to no interest at all. Captain Phillips is one of those new releases. The real story of Richard Phillips and his ordeal with Somali pirates in 2009 is still relatively fresh in my memory, and I usually would not desire to see a film that holds so little of the unknown for me. Buy hey ho, where the ‘buzz’ leads, I must follow.
The film plays out as a high suspense action thriller detailing the hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama and subsequent kidnapping of its Captain by four pirates off the coast of Somalia. Though the title of the film references only Captain Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), director Paul Greengrass takes the decision from the off to portray both Phillips and head pirate Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) as joint protagonists. The first ten minutes of the film consist of similar scenes portraying both Captain and pirate preparing for their venture, Phillips leaving his family and Muse doing the same. Both men are shown here to be simply getting on with their jobs, and this is a line of characterisation that Greengrass upholds throughout the picture, the duality between ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ and the difference between the two being a simple matter of circumstance and perspective. Hanks proves once again that he is perhaps the best actor of a generation, carrying the weight of the film better than just about anybody else I can think of. He is helped immensely, however, by Barkhad Abdi and his three Somalian co-stars Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali, all of whom are making their cinematic debuts. The intensity and rawness of their performances, coupled with their startling and imposing aesthetic qualities produce a powerful and imposing group of characters, not for one second do they seem out of their depth in the presence of acting royalty, and that is testament to their own previously hidden talent.
These individual performances from Hanks and co are truly what keep the film going, as at just over two and a half hours in length there are points at which one’s patience begins to be tested. I can understand the choice to draw out some of the hostage sequences, to emphasise the longevity of Captain Phillips’ ordeal, but the problem here is that these set pieces begin to feel rather repetitive. Whereas one scene to display Phillips’ quick thinking and calm nature would have sufficed, we are given three. Whereas one scene to indicate Muse’s potentially forgiving nature would do, we are given three. This pattern repeats itself for almost every important aspect of the film and there comes a point when my backside is numbing that my mind begins to wander. Another choice with which I was not enamoured, but can however fully understand, is the style in which the film was shot. The close up, shaky, wave imitating camera work, whilst absolutely being in keeping with the oceanic setting and claustrophobic tone of the film, produced the same headache inducing reaction in me as The Blair Witch Project, and was at times so severe that I had to shut my eyes simply to refocus them.
Ultimately, I think my main problem with Captain Phillips is that the suspense and drama so painstakingly worked up by all involved in the piece is wasted on somebody like me who already knows the outcome. It is hard to feel dread for a character whom you know is alive and well as we speak. Perhaps the film will have a greater impact on those who have no knowledge of the real life story. As for our old friend ‘buzz’, I would not be at all surprised to see Tom Hanks’ or Barkhad Abdi’s names mentioned numerous times over the course of the next five months. Captain Phillips feels to me to be one of those much talked about films that everybody sees once and never again, and it is certainly worth that initial viewing for the power of the acting performances alone.