Paul Greengrass has forged a reputation as a director of taut, tense thrillers over the past ten years or so, his films usually containing a political edge and often based on real events. After his breakthrough film Bloody Sunday, which depicted the 1972 shootings of Northern Irish anti-internment activists by British soldiers, Greengrass was hired to direct the second and third films in the original Matt Damon-starring Jason Bourne trilogy. Sandwiched in-between The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum was United 93, a gripping dramatization based on the 9/11 hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93. It was a widely praised film that was shot in a quasi-documentary fashion and the director has employed the same hand-held camera style for his latest film, Captain Phillips.
Here, Greengrass has turned his attention to Somalia, or more specifically a huge area of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia where international shipping routes are constantly under threat from pirates. The rise in piracy in the region has increased dramatically since the second phase of the Somali Civil War early in the 21st Century; in 2008 there were 111 reported attacks, which included 42 successful hijackings, but by March 2009 the rate of attacks had increased tenfold. Organisation has also increased; it is thought that funding of piracy operations is now structured through a stock exchange in the town of Harardhere, with investors apparently buying and selling shares in upcoming attacks.
Greengrass’s film is based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips. Played here by a committed Tom Hanks, Phillips was the captain of the Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by Somali pirates en route from Oman to Mombassa in 2009. Phillips made a huge sacrifice and selflessly persuaded the hijackers to take him with them as a sole hostage, thereby freeing the crew of the Alabama.
The film opens with a pair of contrasting scenes. The first shows Phillips saying goodbye to his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) back home in the US; meanwhile thousands of miles away, in a small fishing village on the Somali coast, a group of pirates are ordered by a local warlord to increase their attacks in order to make more money. (This is the only scene that gives the viewer a glimpse of the way the piracy operation is run from the land, or a glimpse of the poverty the Somali pirates face, although much is shown of the pirates’ methods of working when at sea. It gives us a small insight into the reasons why some Somalis are being forced into such a dangerous activity, but there’s no doubt that the film is largely based on the account of – and therefore about – Capt. Phillips.) Both Phillips and the pirates – led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) – set sail at roughly the same time.
Phillips appears to be concerned about the Alabama’s safety protocols, and orders his crew to undertake safety drills while at sea. During one of these drills, however, the boat is attacked by two skiffs containing half a dozen pirates. During a truly gripping ten minutes Phillips manages to first throw off the skiffs by broadcasting fake US Navy announcements over the airwaves, before the pirates return with renewed intent. Despite being light in number they are able to intimidate the ship’s crew with their weapons and board using lightweight ladders. A hostage situation ensues, and Phillips and his crew must try to stay alive while they wait for assistance from the US military.
Given the amount of piracy that has occurred in these waters, and the size and value of the ships’ cargoes, it is astonishing that Phillips and his crew – like many others – had to fend for themselves without any onboard protection. One crew member points out, quite rightly, that he isn’t paid or contracted to fight armed pirates. The stress and strain of the situation is captured expertly by Greengrass and, in particular, Hanks.
Hanks has played the regular guy who happens to find himself in charge and forced to lead under exceptional circumstances before, and he excels at this type of character; there are many similarities between the quietly heroic Captain Phillips and Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller. The actor is on screen in nearly every shot of the movie, and it’s a towering central performance that will, at the very least, earn him another Oscar nomination in 2014.
Also impressive are the four main Somali actors, who responded to a casting call in Minneapolis in 2011. Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat Ali may well be rookies, but they act well in what appears to have been difficult, cramped conditions.
It’s interesting to note that events depicted in the film have been disputed by the crew. Greengrass, however, has a certain degree of licence here, having made a film based on Richard Phillips’s account of events, first and foremost. However at the time of writing eleven crew members have filed a lawsuit against the Waterman Steamship Corporation and Maersk Line for nearly $50 million alleging “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety” by Phillips. A New York Post article stated that Phillips received seven e-mails about the increasing threat of piracy near Somalia, but ignored all the warnings and kept them from his crew. It has further been alleged that a crew member was also tasked with recording all of the hijackings in the region, but when it was shown to Phillips he ignored the information at hand and continued off-course through the region. Additionally, the article states that there were two hijackings in an 18 hour period, as opposed to the one shown in the film. Richard Phillips has strongly asserted that the recent criticism of his role is unjustified.
And here’s Paul Greengrass’s take on the question of authenticity: “When we started the film, it was a top priority for me to look into this issue in every detail. And I obviously can’t comment on this lawsuit, but what I can say is that myself, we researched the background of the Maersk Alabama highjacking in exhausting detail over many months. We spoke to every member of the Alabama crew bar one, all of the U.S. Military responders that played a leading role in these events, and thoroughly researched backgrounds of the four pirates and the issue of Somali piracy generally. And I’m 100% satisfied that the picture we present of these events in the film, including the role playing by Captain Phillips, is authentic.”
We know all along that Phillips survives, given that he subsequently wrote a book about his experience. Brilliantly, Greengrass piles on the tension throughout, and makes us forget this one important fact for most of the film’s duration. This is a cut above ordinary thrillers, and backs up the interesting subject matter with a refusal to bow to convention: at the end of the Captain’s ordeal, Greengrass avoids the usual tearful reunion with family members (Catherine Keener appears at the very start of the film, but not subsequently). Instead the abiding memory taken away by many cinemagoers will be Hanks’s intense barbaric yawp, emitted shortly after Phillips realises that he has been saved. All the building tension is released at that point, but rather than allowing us to revel in a happy ending there’s just an intense air of sadness about the film, rather than any great relief. Greengrass makes us acutely aware of the plight of the pirates, and their fate is inevitable when they come up against the might of the US military. While it’s impossible to condone them, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for their predicament. The director even ends the movie with the disturbing image of Phillips receiving treatment for his severe shock, just to hammer home the downbeat vibe; there are no real winners in this stellar, relentless thriller.
Critics have suggested the film celebrates military might a little too readily and unquestioningly in the final act, but I think this is unfair. There are long, lingering shots of huge warships, sure, but I don’t think Greengrass is revelling in showing these in the way that a right-leaning American director might do. The fact is the Navy was “there”, and played a crucial part in this story. It’s impossible to tell the tale and leave them out of it or play down their role.
I only have one problem with the film, which is that I wish Greengrass had concerned himself more with the driving factors behind the events, rather than just the events themselves. Perhaps making such a film would just be too damn complicated, though, and perhaps the director is happy just to raise questions in the minds of his audiences that can then be looked into long after the cinema seats have sprung shut.
What is certain is that he has made a fascinating, tense picture, and has cajoled a performance from his star that will be held up alongside the very best of his career.
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
Running Time: 134 Minutes