It's not hard to see why Captain Phillips was chosen as the 2013 London Film Festival Opening Night Gala. The film's pedigree is obvious: Tom Hanks starring, Paul "Bourne" Greengrass directing, and the topical subject of Somali pirates at the heart of this true story. The fact that it's also greater than the sum of its impressive parts doesn't hurt either.
Although it weighs in at a whopping 134 minutes – or about an hour more than today's imbecilic attention spans can generally handle – and tells a story of which many viewers will already know the outcome, Greengrass's direction and Hanks' barely-off-screen titular performance makes it feel more like 20 minutes, 19 of which will be spent on the very edge of your seat.
Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, the American captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, a US cargo ship attempting to negotiate the treacherous waters off the coast of Africa en route to Mombasa. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi is Muse, a young Somali fisherman who, like most of the men in his Somali coastal village, is under the influence of local gangsters. Fishing pays little, piracy pays more and it's the economics of the situation that sees Muse and Phillips vie for control of the Alabama and the lives of Phillips' crew.
It's an unusual battle of wits, where the stakes rapidly escalate. As an American, Phillips is deemed to be a finer, more valuable asset than his cargo. The US Navy, however, has other ideas and is tracking the ship to bring about a speedy resolution, even if that means nullifying the Somalian bargaining position by removing Phillips from the equation.
While Greengrass's more political work suggests he leans to the left, it's clear from his drooling over Navy technology and weaponry that he's as fan boy about military hardware as much as the average man and, probably, at least as much as the average Call of Duty addict. Mind you, it's hard not to be impressed by the tech as the action switches between the intense negotiations and head-to-head battle between Phillips and Abdi and his pirate colleagues, and the Navy's extreme military preparations, most of which redefine the adage about sledgehammers and nuts.
It's the human angle that most impresses however, with Hanks making a decent claim for a third Oscar in a mostly straightforward, tic-free, intensely believable performance that, when he finally snaps under the pressure of the events, is as devastating as watching your dad cry.
Using an adjective such as "visceral" when discussing Greengrass's intense work is becoming something of a cliche, but there are few better words. This is a film that thrills, engages and leaves you exhausted by the end credits. It's also a pretty good calling card for any claim Greengrass would like to stake for the next Bond film...
EXTRAS ★★★ There's an audio commentary with director Greengrass, and the substantial and fascinating making-of featurette Capturing Captian Phillips (58:16), which details the film's shoot on location off the coast of Malta and includes interviews with director Greengrass, stars Hanks and Abdi, executive producer Gregory Goodman, and the real-life Captain Richard Phillips.