Paul Greengrass gave us terror in the skies in United 93 after showing us terror on land in Bloody Sunday. Now he brings us terror on the sea in Captain Phillips, a white-knuckle recreation of a real-life 2009 hijacking that, either by accident or design, plays like 'Zero Dark Thirty: The Prequel'.
Yes, the same Navy SEAL unit that took out Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 got to warm up their trigger fingers two years earlier when the Maersk Alabama - a US container ship lugging freight from Oman to Kenya - was boarded by brigands as it sailed past Somalia. Parachuting into the Indian ocean under the cover of darkness, the men from DEVGRU - Naval Special Warfare Development Group - played a crucial role in the resolution of the crisis that may well have had an impact on that later, more celebrated mission.
Small wonder then that Greengrass' film shares some of its chromosomes with Kathryn Bigelow's, particularly when, after two heart-stoppingly tense hours, it finally reaches its lethal endgame. For all their tactical ability, nous and rippling musculature, however, the SEALS are not the heroes here. That honour belongs to a grey-flecked, glasses-wearing, man-boobed sea salt - an ordinary Joe who, when pushed into a corner, reveals extraordinary fortitude and resilience.
When we first encounter Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), he's a working stiff being driven to the airport by his loving if careworn wife (Catherine Keener). A stickler for procedure and a rather cold fish, he's respected by his crew but hardly loved - a by-the-booker with a job to do and no time for shilly-shallying.
Yet when a pair of skiffs appear on the sonar headed for his vessel, the company man becomes a man to be reckoned with, capable of not just thwarting an initial assault with some well-placed backwash but also of quashing an incipient mutiny with a well-read riot act.
Divided by centuries they may be, but when it comes to skippering, he’s as masterful and commanding as Captain Jack Aubrey. By that logic, it’s tempting to see Muse (Barkhad Abdi) – the boldest of the armed quartet that eventually make it on board – as Captain Jack Sparrow. The reality, though, is a world apart from Johnny Depp’s swaggering scallywag. There’s no yo-ho-ho in this pirate’s life, just a rifle-waving warlord demanding he set sail and seize the first tanker he comes across.
Yet within that surly, emaciated frame lurks a core of coiled steel that makes this Somali-American newcomer as much of a match for Hanks as any of the more established actors he has jousted with over the decades. Indeed, one of the incidental pleasures Captain Phillips affords is the sight of Hanks having to raise his game to stop this scarily credible unknown stealing the film out from under him.
OK, so screenwriter Billy Ray does weight the film in the older man’s favour. While we hear about Phillips’ home life and family, Muse and his fellow pirates – seasoned marauder Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), timid first-timer Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) and volatile Khat addict Najee (Faysal Ahmed) – are defined entirely by their piracy. At root, they’re no different from the terrorists in United 93: driven, implacable foot-soldiers with no back stories worth a mention. Character nuance isn’t exactly Greengrass’ forte, especially if there’s a danger of holding up the action.
Oh, but what action. Placing us squarely in the crosshairs of a real-time hostage scenario, the Green Zone man brilliantly charts every detail of this Somali basin stand-off, from Phillips’ attempts to repel the boarders with fire hoses and distress flares, to his later captivity on a lifeboat. When US warships invite themselves to the party, Greengrass ratchets up the stakes, juxtaposing the lifeboat’s claustrophobic innards with the hi-tech command centres of the behemoths tasked with retrieving it. Fights don’t get much unfairer than this, yet Ray still keeps us on a knife’s edge as to which way it’ll go.
Lensman Barry Ackroyd, meanwhile, makes us virtual participants in the unfolding drama, so much so you might find yourself suffering from seasickness as you stumble gratefully homewards. Fortitude and resilience? You’ll require them yourself if you’re to emerge unscathed from this gripping maritime thriller.
What you’ll also need, however, is a touch of forbearance. Greengrass’ big idea is to make Phillips’ story a big juicy metaphor for the inequities of globalisation and the way market forces shape our world. As ideas go, it’s a thumpingly unsubtle one that, rather like that lifeboat, bobs about aimlessly with no destination in sight.
Squeezing every drop of tension from wet-ink recent history, Phillips only falters when making its protagonists mouthpieces in a broader geopolitical debate. Otherwise, it’s full steam ahead to the Oscars.