With: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener
Runtime: 134 minutes
DESPITE what movie marketing would have us believe, major stars are becoming an endangered species. These are the actors who can sell a picture on their name alone, who function as a kind of movie currency, bringing a promise to pay the bearer on demand a great night out. Tom Hanks, despite the occasional crime against the legacy such as the Da Vinci movies and Larry Crowne, is one of that select band.
Put the all-American Hanks together with British director Paul Greengrass, helmer of two Bournes, United 93 and Green Zone, and you have a very special screen relationship indeed. In Captain Phillips, based on the true story of the hijacking of a US container ship by Somali pirates, both actor and director are at the top of their game, delivering a picture packed with nerve shredding tension, and straight to the heart human drama.
As part favour to the audience's blood pressure, and partly a way of introducing us to the characters before the hurly-burly starts, Greengrass begins with the journey to the airport of Captain Phillips (Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener, one of only a handful of women in the film and on screen for mere minutes, but making every one count). Leaving home is becoming harder each time for Phillips, but needs must when the devil calls with bills.
The pair talk about that, and about their sons, one of whom is giving the captain cause for concern. He wonders if the boy realises what it takes to cut it in an increasingly cut and thrust employment market. It is a hard world for a working man is the message. Just how hard is about to become clear.
Phillips is the captain of a US container ship heading from Oman to Kenya with a cargo that ranges from consumer goods to food aid. It is 2009, and the threat from Somali pirates is on the radar of every vessel passing through these waters. Systems are in place to deal with threats, scenarios have been planned for. Boosting confidence further, this is a ship flying under the Stars and Stripes. All of this, plus the sheer size of the vessel, would seem to make it invulnerable to any band of desperadoes in small, rickety boats.
But desperadoes are out there nevertheless. While Phillips and his crew are going about their business on the sea, gang bosses are doing the rounds of Somali villages looking for the right men for a hijacking job. There is no shortage of volunteers willing to earn a little money for themselves and a lot more for the kingpins further up the chain. Whether Somalia or Stateside, the working stiff always gets stiffed.
It is the first of several occasions when Greengrass subtly adds first world versus developing world politics to the mix. He never asks the audience to have sympathy with the pirates (there is no chance of that), but he does signal where they are coming from in every sense. While he could have pressed the point a little harder, the fact he can build such nuances into a story is one of the reasons he is rated as the savviest action director working today. With Greengrass the audience gets thrills, and something to think about besides.
As in United 93, set on one of the doomed planes of 9/11, the story takes place within fixed boundaries. There is no escaping, either for the crew or the audience. The easy option would have been to cut back and forth from what is happening on the high seas and the reactions at home, but Greengrass knows where his story lies. He stays on the water, using the corridors and cubby holes of the ship as his arena.
Every arena needs its gladiators and the picture has a fine duo in Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, playing Muse, one of the pirates. High up in the gang but not the leader, Muse has some English, making him the main point of contact for Phillips. The hijacking, he assures the captain, is strictly business. "No Al-Qaeda here." All Phillips has to do is hand over the loot, the pirates will leave, the insurance company will pay up and everyone can go home.
So the two captains duel over one ship - Phillips trying to protect his crew and bring the siege to a close, Abdi's character intent on a big payday.
This, incredibly, is Abdi's first film. Incredibly because he is going mano a mano not only with Hanks but with all the sound and furious action of a Greengrass picture. He could have been lost in the din, or played his character as a cardboard cut-out villain, but he manages to add so many more layers to Muse.
The rest of the credit, though, belongs to Hanks, who powers the film along like some acting equivalent of a container ship's engine. The true heir to James Stewart when it comes to an Everyman under pressure, he rules every wave and scene.
Stewart won just one Oscar in his career, and an honorary award at that. Hanks already has two. Don't bet against him adding another with this.