The 57th London Film Festival is off to an impressive and nerve-wracking start with cargo-ship siege thriller Captain Phillips, which – like the effect the Somalian piracy incident had on Tom Hanks’s Maersk ship captain – hijacks our nervous system throughout its protracted yet still nail-bitingly tense 134-minute run-time, persistently refusing to let go right until its emotionally cathartic climax. At first glance, what sounds as another generic, based-on-real-events Hollywood-varnished genre exercise becomes a technically propulsive and proficient drama-thriller hybrid in the hands of Paul Greengrass, who specialises in this kind of knuckle-gnawing tension he demonstrated in the Bourne franchise and the terrific United 93. What surprised me most about Captain Phillips is that I haven’t pulled all my hair out, keeling all over the floor gagging for an oxygen mask. I urge you to believe this statement is not one of hyperbole. Greengrass is brilliantly effective in delivering high-stakes, lacerating tension (in some key scenes, I’ve forgotten to breathe) whilst still remaining character-driven, bar the rest of the crew from both parties, mostly standing in as ciphers that populate the drama.
I haven’t seen Tobias Lindholm’s similarly themed A Hijacking, to which I could possibly contrast Greengrass’s film against, but there’s barely any other properly measured thriller such as this since Ben Affleck’s Argo. As ruthlessly functional these films are, they’re near-perfectly calibrated, miniature cardiac arrests that would ironically appeal to adrenaline enthusiasts and general public alike, mainstream efforts designed to draw both box-office and awards-race credibility. Captain Philipps has its flaws – the opening scene is clunky with foreboding and exposition, and somewhere in the latter half, when Richard Phillips is forcefully entrapped inside a little ship by the Somalian chief pirate Muse and his armed cohorts, the film fails to keep up with the pace and often pandering to repetition. It’s saved, however, by momentary nuances of the parallel between Phillips and Muse (non-professional Barkhad Abdi providing unexpected complexity, steering the character away from the prototype villain role), both captains of their crew following protocols and higher social orders. And what separates them both is their notion of humanity, deep desperation and geopolitical poverty. And if that’s not enough meaty drama for you, there’s a finale that feels hard-won, with Tom Hanks knocking that ‘performing art’ out of the park. This man might have mellowed down over the years, but the last few minutes of Captain Phillips bracingly captures the post-traumatic distress with such emotional force, it will have you sobbing like a wreck.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Paul Greengrass | CAST: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Michael Chernus | SCREENPLAY: Billy Ray | DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures| RUNNING-TIME: 134 mins | GENRE: Thriller/Drama | COUNTRY: USA