Ever since Paul Greengrass emerged as a feature director with Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy, we have enjoyed making jokes about seasickness. Inviting his cameramen to bat their handheld apparatuses around like so many volleyballs, the film-maker has been a veritable gift to the people who make Dramamine.
The prospect of a Greengrass film set at sea seems, thus, like a rum prospect. There's only so much keeling (not to mention yawing) that an audience can take.
Fear not. It transpires that the director – after a misstep with the unfocused Green Zone – has happened upon the perfect
vehicle for his school of kinetic film-making. Tom Hanks stars as an impeccably professional ship's captain who somehow retained his cool after Somali pirates overran his container vessel. It is to Greengrass's credit that, after transforming the way action films are shot (and reinventing the Bond franchise without any direct involvement), he still manages to imprint his own unmistakable watermark on the action sequences. Whereas imitators impose faux-disorder on the shooting, Greengrass and his veteran cinematographer Barry Ackroyd give the impression that the camera is genuinely trying to catch up with unexpected and dangerous turns of events.
He is helped in his endeavours by a characteristically compassionate performance from the star. It has become a commonplace to compare Hanks's efforts to embody the Everyman with those of Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper. Those actors were, however, allowed to offer heightened caricatures of ordinariness. Poor Tom is often asked to summon up something like the real thing. We begin with him saying goodbye to his wife (an almost comically underused Catherine Keener) and making his way to vast teeming docklands. From the very beginning it is pressed home that he is a stickler for the regulations. Protective gates must be locked. Drills must be taken seriously. These are not the typical attitudes of a movie hero (so often a maverick). But, among other things, Captain Phillips is an argument for the virtues of procedure. Hanks's initial stoicism makes an eventual emotional breakdown all the more moving.
The politics of the film are somewhat uneasy. Like the recent, superficially similar A Hijacking – which had much more to do with negotiations on land and couldn't afford Greengrass's yawning shots of busy maritime commerce – Captain Phillips has trouble making characters of the hijackers. This is an understandable lapse. The picture is largely shot from Phillips's perspective and, to the crew, the AK-47 wielding bandits would seem like avatars of terror. Yet the old radical (whose dad was a merchant seaman) does manage to sneak in a sliver of Marxist commentary: the contrast between the pirates' dusty Somali village and Phillips's plush suburban home says much about the world's insurmountable inequalities.
For all this, the film does have problems. The initial assaults and eventual boarding are among the most thrilling sequences you will see in the cinema this year.
The aggressive interactions
between Phillips and his captors are magisterially tense. In the second half, however, the film decelerates somewhat. If you know anything about the true story you will know that Phillips eventually ended up in a lifeboat with the latter-day buccaneers. By that stage, the US Navy had arrived and the vessel was surrounded by enough commandos to invade a small island. The closing 45 minutes remain studded with bravura sequences. But we are never in any real doubt who is going to triumph in this particular standoff. You may as well try and obfuscate the denouement of Little Big Horn.
Captain Phillips remains, however, a triumph for Greengrass, Ackroyd, Hanks and the strong supporting cast. This is what piracy is now really like. In truth, it was probably always like this.