October tends to be the point in the year where we find a sharp increase in the amount of high quality movies being released for awards season. After Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine seemed to kick off this year’s run of Oscar-bait releases, Captain Phillips seems to be continuing the trend of well-acted, well directed Best Picture hopefuls.
From director Paul Greengrass, of Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum fame, Captain Phillips is the true story of the American captain of a cargo ship taken hostage by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa. This premise may give the impression that this is a high octane action blockbuster cut from the same cloth as a John Carpenter classic of the 1980s and not the sort of film that mops up come award season. Yet whilst this is true to some degree, it works differently to how you might expect. There is a real emotional sophistication at play here; Greengrass doesn’t deal in the black and white morality of more conventional bythe-book action fare.
The ‘good guy’ Rich Phillips and the ‘bad guy’ Abduwali Muse, played brilliantly by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, are given equal attention in the narrative. We see both of them before the main events, the former discussing with his wife his son’s difficult futurein the competitive modern world and the latter rounding up volunteers in a poverty stricken village to embark out to sea for a spot of piracy. It isn’t a forced sentimentality that causes us to sympathize with the hijackers though, they don’t break down and reveal the hardships of African life, rather we just witness their humanity in a realistic manner.
Despite being set almost entirely on the ship with most of the dialogue between these two leads, Greengrass still manages to tell the story with a conscious understanding of the geopolitical climate that is causing these events. There is no formal antagonist on screen, the real villain of Captain Phillips is the systems and amoral forces that have not only allowed events like this to occur, but meant that it is the only way for these young men to live.
Captain Phillips is undoubtedly a brilliant film. It is expertly judged in its direction, always tense, but never feels contrived when it touches on larger ideas and themes. Greengrass’ work is more reminiscent of the emotional action films of Michael Mann than the schlocky chest-thumping Steven Seagal type fare it could easily have been in the hands of a bad director; it’s Heat on the high seas for a post 9/11 audience.