Emotionally charged, suspenseful and brilliantly paced; there’s no denying Paul Greengrass’ ability to keep the tension high throughout his dramatisation of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking. While its high octane action is certainly engaging, Captain Phillips lacks the depth to take it to another level and is unable to shake the feeling of being a missed opportunity; an entertaining thriller, but little more.
When the action subsides, Greengrass turns to his cast to maintain the tension and while their fine performances are enough to keep the sinking ship afloat, they aren’t nearly as strong as some critics would have you believe. The fundamental problem with Billy Ray’s screenplay is, aside from the two leads, a lack of substantial character development. At no stage are the audience supplied with enough detail of the pirates’ motivation to truly understand their antagonistic behaviour and nor can they empathise with a one dimensional crew who lack the weight to encourage an audience to be significantly affected by their capture.
Nevertheless, Tom Hanks delivers one of his finest performances in years. He plays the titular character with natural charm, sturdy determination and emotional fervency, evoking a great authenticity that anchors the believable qualities of this real life tale. His counterpart, Barkhad Abdi, in his breakthrough performance as the Somali pirate leader Muse, brings an excellent complexity to his character, a moral ambiguity that juxtaposes a sensitive undertone with overtly violent rage. Abdi administers these traits supremely, which results in powerful and unsettling moments where you often sympathise with the antagonist.
Captain Phillips is a perfectly adequate thriller with as many flaws as qualities. It’s an intense thrill, but often unnecessarily frantic, well acted, but underdeveloped and about thirty minutes too long, but concluded with such aplomb that makes it all worthwhile.