Captain Phillips

‘There is a scene near the end of the movie which will earn Tom Hanks another Oscar nomination.’ Shiver me timbers! ARON PENCZU’s faith in Hollywood is restored by this swashbucklin’ tale of Somalian pirates on the high seas.

aron penczu captain phillips Paul Greengrass tom hanks

There are ships today so massive that each manoeuvre must be planned and adjusted for minutes in advance, and mistakes made in docking can be all but irreversible.

Imagine the instants of strained inevitability before a collision, the paradox of hushed stillness and imminent disaster. Captain Philips frequently has this quality—a sort of colossal, static intensity. It’s a brilliant film and made by a master of the craft.

Tom Hanks plays Rich Phillips: grizzled and middle-aged, he flies out of Vermont to captain a cargo freighter round the Horn of Africa. The film’s exposition is superbly economical, cutting between the launch of the Maersk Alabama and the launch of a Somali pirate expedition. We witness these pirates in the context of their own social realities: a criminal hierarchy exerting its warping pressures, youths competing for places aboard the skiffs, an atmosphere of hostile bravado. Phillips gently berates his crew for taking a long break; in an argument over an imputation of cowardice, one pirate kills another with a wrench. These juxtapositions are fascinating, and the moments of intersection—the skiffs two ominous blips on the radar; or the pirates breaking into the bridge—are powerful.

Structurally, Captain Phillips pits the eponymous American against Abduwali Muse, a young Somali who leads the boarding party. Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi in an astonishing first performance, is a man whose calm is unnerving because it threatens continually to explode into violence. It is a game of will as much as wit: in an early scene he announces he will kill one hostage for every minute the rest of the crew don’t emerge (they’re hiding in the engine room). Phillips faces him down.

How did things end up this way? They are fishermen, Muse later claims, who have resorted to piracy because foreigners overfish their oceans. ‘There’s gotta be something other than fishing and kidnapping people,’ Hanks tells him. ‘Maybe in America,’ he replies. In another film this sort of theme might become staid and formularised, but Greengrass’ is a sharp director. We may fear Muse, and we must deplore him, but Captain Phillips also allows us to pity him, to see him invested with his full humanity. Such attentiveness to nuance is one of the film’s greatest assets.

Much of the film’s second act takes place in the cramped interior of a (closed) lifeboat, claustrophobic and tense. I won’t give away the climax except to mention that there is a scene near the end of the movie which will earn Tom Hanks another Oscar nomination. Based on a true story, Captain Phillips‘ illusion of authenticity is buoyed by the relative anonymity of the rest of the cast: yes, one feels, watching it; it could have happened in this way.

No doubt it will be criticised for inaccuracy, and there is already some controversy about Phillips’ character and judgment. But accuracy is not really the point. In an age so surfeit with narratives as to have become cynical to them, the non-fiction clause may act like a reset button, freeing up stories to be unironic about concepts like heroism, or the military, or being brave. And that’s a good thing. Captain Phillips is, as well as an extraordinarily effective movie, a reassurance about the future of Hollywood