By Jason Lin
Paul Greengrass' dedication towards his craft that seeks realism is well observed in his latest feature Captain Phillips as he commandeers a nearly impeccable action thriller vessel that arrests viewers at gunpoint right from the start. Easily one of the cinematic gems for this year.
Columbia Pictures' action-thriller Captain Phillips stars two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks in the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.
Maritime security, or piracy off the Somali coast in particular, is a niche topical region that is likely to be dear to the shipping industry. Not only is it commercial and technical, it also involves certain sociopolitical elements that deserves some level of awareness towards a broader audience.
Based on true life accounts of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates during his command of MV Maersk Alabama and subsequently authored "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea", Paul Greengrass charters a cinematic vessel and takes his audience on a remarkable voyage that keeps them constantly at the edge of their seats.
Not that the high seas are rough, although Greengrass adopts a handheld camera visual perspective with his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who did Green Zone) as part of his efforts to achieve realism (while the uninitiated may complain from possible dizzy spells), but it's the thrilling action via devised tensions amidst vast amount of research and details that overwhelms and inspires the main story much closer to the hearts of viewers.
Vast is an adjective that will undermine Greengrass and his team's efforts towards background technical research. From the linguistic maritime terminologies right to the tactical naval special operations, the details are also executed correctly in synergy. Presumably with the advice of industry and military practitioners.
Not forgetting how the acting in Captain Phillips also achieves a high standard of realism, as it leaves little questions to the onscreen character behaviours. What seems to be obvious product/brand placement, such as the deliberate Maersk branding, might be some of the few areas that will not agree with Greengrass' efforts to achieve realism. What might be of interest is how Captain Phillips is perceived in real life as he allegedly risked piracy to save fuel (fuel is an obscene cost for ships as marine bunker fuel accounts for over 50% of a ship's operating cost) and time. In any case, a new rising issue on privately contracted armed escorts onboard commercial vessels plying near high risk waters is now in place.
Technical excellence aside that has enabled the film to be a quality canvas for the actors to paint the strokes, the acting takes significant credits to help Greengrass reflect certain themes and values. The breath-taking first confrontation between the ship crew and the Somali pirates enjoys an exhilarating build-up and climax that really gets viewers chewing their nails as if they are the ones being held at gunpoint.
Easily one of the best performance by Tom Hanks in the recent years, his performance ranges from nuance to hysterical. One of the later scenes where he is being triaged by a paramedic/doctor remains as one of the best examination and reenactment of actual human behaviour. Barkhad Abdi as the lead Somali pirate helps the realism cause further as he is a non-actor who nevertheless renders a good performance. The uneasy chemistry between Hanks and Abdi's characters do serve as some of the memorable highlights of the film.
Greengrass does not depict a conventional impression where the Somali pirates are the clear antagonists who wreck havoc for a bunch of unsuspecting seafarers. Instead Greengrass reflects some of the sociopolitical sentiments subtly, mostly through physical acts and non-verbal communication. There is a shift in perceived roles as the lines between right and wrong is blurred by motives and complex human emotions revealed.
Piracy in Somali is indeed induced by external drivers both native and global. The increase in commercial shipping activities off the Somali Coast has resulted in a negative impact upon the livelihoods of Somali fishermen through the reduced supply of seafood. Somali feudalism drives fishermen towards organised crime (piracy) as they need to feed/support warlords and what better opportunity to capitalise upon than the significant world maritime cargo traffic that is moving along the Somali coast.
Interestingly, Greengrass didn't create a huge agenda out of the sociopolitical themes and instead focused on the characters and the genre deliverables. This allows Greengrass to focus more on the action and drama. As an action thriller, Captain Phillips soars to the top spot for this year. In terms of plausibility and credibility, it also ranks highly with the tremendous (commendable) research efforts taken.
Despite a long and trecherous voyage (134 minutes), Captain Phillips remains firm and steady to emerge as a very likely award season candidate later this year.
(Preview screening courtesy of Sony Pictures Singapore)