Paul Greengrass, the master of the rubber-band moment, proves his ability yet again to yank viewers to the edge of their seats and reach for their fingernails in the piracy thriller Captain Phillips. Based on the real-life account of a Somali pirate attack in 2009, Captain Phillips begins in a routine way and concludes in a Best Actor Oscar bid, but the opening and climax bookend an often heart-stopping battle of wills between a ship cargo crew and four daredevil pirates.

The English director’s much-vaunted prowess in squeezing cinematic juice out of news headlines gets full rein in Captain Phillips. Billy Ray’s no-time-to-lose screenplay draws from American sailor Richard Phillips’s A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea. Phillips was at the helm of the MV Maersk Alabama cargo ship when it was overrun by pirates off Somalia on 8 April, 2009. The pirates took Phillips hostage after grabbing money from the ship, but were ultimately defeated by a US Navy SEALs team. Three of the four pirates were killed, while the fourth, Muse, is incarcerated in an American prison.

Tom Hanks in a still

Abdi, a refugee who fled Somalia as a child and now lives in the US, is the crooked counterpoint to Phillips’s dutiful bloke, a duty-bound foot soldier whose loyalty to the warlord who ordered the hijacking never wavers even in the face of American military might. Greengrass gives Hanks his Oscar audition, but he also allows empathy for Abdi and his cohorts, whose desperate determination to build a future on ill-gotten gains is beautifully established in an early sequence in which the pirates are recruited from among the ragtag residents of a fishing village. The sadness of the Somalis, especially Muse, who dreams of visiting America some day, helps balance out the casual heroics of the Navy SEALs, who appear on cue to provide the perfect Hollywood ending.

Although there are moments of release across the near relentless 134-minute cat- and-mice game, Captain Phillips actually works best when Greengrass keeps his finger on the trigger. Hanks’ everyman-in-a-crisis turn is effective and on expected lines but is eclipsed by Abdi’s tragedy, which stands in for an entire nation gutted by colonialism, poverty and civil war.

Captain Phillips opens in select shows at PVR Cinemas multiplexes in Mumbai and Bangalore on 11 October and will be released in the rest of India on 18 October.

Close