There seems to be a deluge of survival stories hitting the theatres of late. After "Prisoners" and "Gravity", this week we have "Captain Phillips". What's interesting is that each film is better than the other.
"Captain Phillips" is a tale of conflict between men who refuse to give in. This forms the crux of this effective thrilling drama.
Based on the book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea" by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty the film is a subtly rousing docudrama that recounts the 2009 hijacking of an American cargo liner and the harrowing experience of its captain.
The screenplay, by Billy Ray, begins very innocuously in a chronological fashion with Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) bidding adieu to his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) in their hometown in Vermont, US.
The wary and by-the-book person Captain Phillips reaches Salalah, Oman, to take charge of the container ship Maersk Alabama carrying emergency aid for East Africa among other cargo to Kenya in Africa.
On board the ship, he carefully checks security and safety procedures after being routinely warned about the unsafe waters he would be sailing in. In fact, he insists that his men have a mock drill just to be prepared.
Simultaneously, on the shore of Ely in Somalia, in a scene so reminiscent of Vittorio de Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" a group of young impoverished khat chewing fishermen are being recruited by rifle toting goons as pirates. After the selections, two motor boats with a crew of four each set sail in search of their prey. Soon they are tailing the Maersk Alabama.
What follows is a battle of wits between Phillips and the pirates. There's an unusual reverence and understanding between Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the pirates and Phillips throughout this ordeal that fuels the tension.
Director Paul Greengrass astutely balances the narration by staying neutral till the very end. He has ensured that the account is not over dramatised. He has taken pains to see that neither the captain nor the US Navy are glorified and nor are the pirates condemned or portrayed as some heinous beings.
Humour comes in the form of the staccato one-liners like, "Shut up Irish, too much talking" or "Do you think I am a beggar" from Muse. This actually breaks the tension of this intense drama.
As a no-nonsense middle-aged captain, Tom Hanks is courageous and vulnerable, dedicated and clever. Yet, he is incredibly human and fallible. This is probably one of his career's best performances.
On the other hand, Barkhad Abdi as the bony, buck-toothed Muse is fascinating. He is fidgety and naive. As a first time actor, he strikingly delivers Muse's greed, fear and pride.
The rest of the cast too give a realistic display of their histrionics, especially those portraying the pirates from Somalia.
On the technical front, camera work by Barry Ackroyd is initially unsteady. The wobbly footage especially during close ups and mid shots is a bit bothersome. But as the story progresses, one tends to ignore this and concentrate on the subject. What adds to the suspense is the taut editing by Christopher Rouse and the excellent background score by Henry Jackman.
What keeps "Captain Phillips" grounded is the focus of the tale and the emotional tinge it contains.