Captain Phillips (4 stars)

Captain Phillips

A riveting high seas drama from Paul Greengrass, starring a career-best Tom Hanks

British director Paul Greengrass is something of a specialist when it comes to recreating fraught real-life events – whether it be the Irish massacre in Bloody Sunday or the 9/11 plane hijacking in United 93. His latest film, Captain Phillips, is also based on a true story – albeit of a lesser-known kind. Set in 2009, it follows what happens when a Mombasa-bound container ship, led by one Captain Richard Phillips (played here by Tom Hanks), was boarded by Somali pirates.

After a brief prologue in which Phillips is driven to the airport by his weary wife (Catherine Keener), the bulk of the film is at sea. And it doesn’t take long for the pirates – led by the ruthless Muse (Barkhad Abdi) – to catch up, despite the resourceful Phillips initially trying to repel their lightweight sea vessel with water canons. Boarding the ship, the pirates arrive armed, dangerous and on very short fuses.

For all of the film’s intense exchanges between Phillips and his captors, Greengrass’ film doesn’t quite measure up to A Hijacking, the Danish-made drama released earlier this year, which wrung every ounce of drama out of tense negotiations between the kidnappers and the shipping company owners. Here, the second half moves into more confined territory, as Phillips’ actions lead him into a scenario fans of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty might appreciate.

No stranger to solo outings like Cast Away, even amid the grandstanding, Hanks is well-equipped to carry the film, and his showdowns with Abdi are particularly riveting. One notable scene, close to the end, sees an emotional outpouring that bests virtually anything he’s done on screen. Matching this, Greengrass’ ever-probing camerawork lends the film a documentary-like urgency – even if it rarely stops to consider the moral and social implications of piracy. In the end, it’s all about the drama on the high seas.

General release from Fri 18 Oct.

'Captain Phillips' Trailer

Captain Phillips

  • 4 stars
  • 2013
  • US
  • 2h 14min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Paul Greengrass
  • Cast: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Max Martini
  • UK release: 18 October 2013

Bourne helmer Greengrass directs the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and his crew's encounter with Somali pirates aboard the Maersk Alabama.