The awards contenders for this year pitted their protagonists against implacable evil (12 Years A Slave) or the elements (Gravity, All Is Lost). Among such hallowed company, it’s no shock that Paul Greengrass’ hostage drama is the most meticulous: it’s based on the real-life Phillips’ account and Greengrass (United 93, the better Bourne films) used to make documentaries (he got his start working on ITV’s current affairs strand World In Action).
The real surprise is that it’s also the most affecting.
Tom Hanks, an unlikely candidate for gritty realism, plays the eponymous captain, a strait-laced seaman in charge of a container ship taken over by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. We first meet Phillips as his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) drives him to the port, the camera staying on the back of their heads as if to say: this could be anyone. It could be you.
The build-up to the hijack is equally matter of fact, almost mundane. Phillips sets sail, reads an operational email about piracy and drills his surly crew as danger – a skiff full of pirates – approaches to the beat of a bored radar beep.
Because it’s seeded organically, when the tension starts to mount it quickly becomes excruciating. Phillips and his crew are ridiculously unprepared to deal with Abduwali Muse (non-professional actor Barkhad Abdi) and his gang, and the David and goliath battle that ensues is comic, tragic and never less than gripping.
In fact, it’s all action – there’s little dialogue beyond ambient tech talk, and the pirates argue in unsubtitled Somali – but it’s also modest, convincing and scrupulously docu-real.
While good action films make you believe, great ones make you care, and Greengrass goes to some lengths to show both sides of the equation, succeeding where his last film, WMD exposé Green Zone (2010), missed the mark.
All wild eyes and jagged cheekbones, muse is as much the victim of his own circumstances as Phillips, and Abdi gives a terrific, career-making performance as a man at least as terrified as he is terrifying. “I got bosses, we all got bosses!” he explains sadly, and the fact that nobody but Phillips seems to care if he lives or dies makes the Mexican stand-off between them all the more upsetting.
Meanwhile, Hanks has never been better – or more real – playing a limited man becoming a hero of the quietest kind. Muse and Phillips aren’t lost in space or trapped in slavery, they’re just ordinary men trying to do their jobs in extraordinary circumstances, and failing.
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