“If you enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean you’re going to love this,” is how I would like to start the blog. It would be funny if it was in any way true – but it isn’t. This is a film about modern-day pirating that takes itself much more seriously than that (it’s based upon a real-life story, after all, don’t you know?). However, the plot is hammered home with all the subtlety of swashbuckling sensation Jack Sparrow flying through the air and smashing into the ship’s steel hull. A particularly lumbering sequence at the start establishes that the hero, Captain Phillips, is married (close-up of a wedding ring), a family man (close-up of the children’s portrait) and about to take his massive cargo ship along the pirate-infested Somali coast (close-up of a map, zoom in on the word ‘Somalia’).
Thankfully there’s also Tom Hanks, as Phillips, who gives a compellingly understated performance that far outshines the rest of the cardboard cut-out crew. They chat about the coffee machine and their union in a way that takes realism to new levels of banality. In going for his trademark naturalistic style, it sometimes feels like director Paul Greengrass has bypassed one vital ingredient: characterisation. It’s a relief when the film gives up trying to be Mike Leigh at sea and turns into a taut hostage thriller that gets most of its drama – and it is, at times, very dramatic – from an inherently tense situation.
From the horrible inevitability of the pirates closing in on the ship, to Phillips’ attempts to save his crew and then himself it’s a gripping story that constantly asks you to question what you would do if you were in the same nightmare situation. But whenever there’s a pause in the action it’s difficult to take the chiselled navy seals, lacklustre crew members and inept Somali pirates, with their oddly Americanised sub-titled dialogue, seriously. They just don’t feel real.
One of the most interesting things about the film is that it attempts to show the pirate’s perspective, setting them up as victims of globalisation and poverty in the same way Phillips and his crew are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Barkhad Abdi is hypnotic as their leader Muse, who refers to himself as “Captain” in the same way Phillips does. We are clearly supposed to see them as two sides of the same coin. But if you strip away each gang member’s few defining personality traits (‘the young one,’ ‘the conflicted one,’ ‘the unstable meathead one’) there’s little left underneath.
Maybe Tom Hanks doesn’t really need co-stars. All he had in Castaway was a football, after all (I kept hoping Wilson might float past the lifeboat window, but sadly, no). This time, his Oscar scene comes towards the end when Phillips is finally hit by the shock of what he has been through and caves in. It’s a moving sequence and a great conclusion to an increasingly absorbing film but one that, with more developed supporting characters, could have been even better.