Captain Phillips is near retirement. It’s March, 2009. He’s taking a container ship round the Horn of Africa, possibly for the last time.
This is pirate territory. They know the drill. He has a crew of 20 – no guns.
Suddenly on the radar sweep they spot two vessels moving fast in their direction. They are prepared. Or so they think.
The vessels are open boats, tiny against the hull of Phillips’ tanker. One turns back, leaving the other bobbing dangerously in choppy waters with four skinny, armed Somalis on board.
British director Paul Greengrass cut his teeth on TV documentaries. His feature films, whether The Bourne Supremacy or United 93, benefit from such training – no fuss, no messing, stay on the action, stay with the story.
Honesty can be hot, it can be cold, but truth is clear, remembering, of course, that a two-and-a-half-hour film has to cut corners because drama requires choreography like an orchestra demands a score.
Greengrass does not indulge sentiment. He remains on the ship. There are no cutbacks to worried relatives back home, nor speculative coverage on CNN.
Tom Hanks, as Phillips, takes the brunt of it. His ability to convey strength of character with the persistent fear of death is astonishing.
He holds the centre, not that the supporting cast is in danger of being blown away. The Somalis are supremely effective. Quite quickly you forget that they are actors at all.The same can be said for the Navy Seals and support personnel that arrive to fortify the rescue mission.
Histrionics are not part of their makeup, neither is emotional response. Phillips may be trapped by circumstance, but he’s not going down without a shout.
As for the shipnappers, they are dangerous because they are afraid.
To treat them as simple fishermen who get greedy is way off the mark.
They have courage and brains, or at least one of them does, and the goody/baddy configuration belongs to a different kind of thriller, not a Greengrass.