On Wednesday night, Tom Hanks opens this year’s London Film Festival and he does so on a high, with the extraordinary true-life thriller Captain Phillips – hands down, the best film of 2013.
The British connection is director Paul Greengrass who has the gift of bringing familiar stories to life with startling immediacy, previously applying the same skills to United 93 and two Bourne movies.
Even if you didn’t watch the news in 2009, you’ll know by now that the real Captain Phillips survived four days held at gunpoint by Somali pirates while sailing the US cargo ship Maersk Alabama around the Horn of Africa.
The film is no less gripping for that knowledge, for three key reasons:
Firstly, Greengrass gets his camera in amongst the action in a way that makes you feel caught up in it; secondly, Hanks delivers a fantastic performance (attention Oscar committee!) tipping between stoicism, anxiety and utter devastation – never having to vocalise what he is thinking because it’s evident. (By the way, that’s also testament to the director’s sharp storytelling instincts.)
And thirdly, Greengrass creates an added layer of tension in Phillips’ attempts to empathise with the pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Frankly, his life depends on it because Muse – who nicknames him “Irish” – serves as a buffer between Phillips and the trigger-happy second-in-command Najee (Faysal Ahmed).
After a heart-stopping first act that sees the Somalis stalk Phillips across the sea then raid the ship, the bulk of the action is contained on a lifeboat – an enclosed vessel that acts as a pressure cooker, testing Phillips’ nerve and the pirates’ too.
The dynamic between the rival captains is never more important and yet, the real Richard Phillips told the New York Daily News it wasn’t quite so…
In his own words: "There was a bond between the pirates in the movie and myself in the movie, but that was never there in the real thing. We were adversaries, we all knew that going in and going out. Many times I've thought, put us back in there without weapons and we'll see who comes out."
If dramatic licence has been taken, does that make the story any less real?
Phillips stayed alive because – as is seen in the film – the Somalis are holding out for ransom money after being forced to abandon ship. But, just as important for Greengrass to convey is that, like their hostage, the Somalis are driven by desperation.
For one thing they’re under the thumb of a ruthless crime lord and later on, they have the US Navy bearing down on them. They are vulnerable and it’s up to Phillips – or at least, the character played by Hanks – to tease that out.
That said, there’s no bleeding heart liberalism here. Some critics take issue with the lack of social context, but they’re probably the kind of socialists who espouse their views to each other on Chesterfield armchairs over bottles of Bollinger.
Instead, the pirates’ brutality is plainly depicted with shocking effect. And yet, it’s impossible not to feel for Muse as he gets in over his head and that’s because Greengrass is a skilled enough filmmaker that he can show you where this man is coming from without having to bore you with backstory.
Even if the real Captain Phillips felt no sympathy with their plight (understandable given the gun shoved in his face) Greengrass is absolutely right not to demonise them and the fact that he can offer an affecting portrayal of Muse without begging for sympathy is a mark of his great talent (as well as Abdi’s).
There’s no star-spangled jingoistic sentiment either. In fact, when the Navy get involved, the risk to Phillips’ life goes through the roof and he quietly understands that Washington would rather see him dead than be taken ashore in Somalia (where he would be an embarrassment to the White House).
The tension levels rise like floodwater in a constant surge until, by the end, you’ll be left gasping. At the climax, the release of so much pent-up emotion is just as powerful with a brilliantly raw turn by Hanks, apparently going into shock.
It’s worth noting that, overall, the real Captain Phillips has given the film his seal of approval as do most critics, setting the bar high for other filmmakers showing their wares during the festival. In so many ways this is cinema at its very best, taking a violent hold and refusing to let go until finally, you’re reduced to a gibbering wreck.
Captain Phillips is in cinemas from October 18th.