Film review: Director's restraint keeps Captain Phillips buoyant

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 13, 2013

Review Drama/action

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (PG)

134 minutes/Opens tomorrow/**** 1/2

The story: This movie is based on the true story of the 2009 pirate boarding of the container ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia. The first pirate attack on an American-registered ship in more than 100 years, it sparked military action by the United States Navy. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), taken for ransom on board a small getaway vessel bound for the Somali coast, has to be rescued. Holding him are fishermen-turned-thugs headed by Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

Recent allegations of exaggerated self-importance thrown at the man whose name is in the film's title may have dented the halo of the seafarer from Massachusetts, but for most, this movie's entertainment value should remain buoyantly intact.

What is even better is that the enjoyment of this high-seas adventure is guilt-free (though up to a certain point).

Director Paul "Shakycam" Greengrass, using a Billy Ray script adapted from Phillips' book, keeps the lead character's lionisation and overall American flag-waving under firm control, while at the same time avoiding making the Somali pirates look like cartoon villains.

Neither does the focus shift into war-movie mode when the navy makes its entrance. Greengrass has admirable restraint when it comes to showing off military gear or men in uniform, setting him apart from those who turn entire movies into recruitment commercials.

Hanks is probably the most likeable actor in Hollywood today and it is obvious why he was asked to participate in this project.

At its heart, the story is one of an ordinary Joe who performs extraordinary feats of courage when pressed. It is a part Hanks is not unfamiliar with - witness everything from Apollo 13 (1995) to Saving Private Ryan (1998) to Cast Away (2000) - and it is one which he brings to unassuming life here as no one else can.

There has been a lot of attention on the performance of fledgling actor, Somali-American Barkhad Abdi, who plays pirate boss Muse.

The praise is deserved. Yes, he does play Muse as a frenzied, gun-waving thug high on drugs, but Muse is also a sly negotiator and a tough boss to his men and he, as a natural leader on screen, is a match for Hanks.

In their choice of Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, 2004; The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007), the producers clearly wanted this to be a prestige picture rather than the format they could have easily used, that of a summer popcorn flick.

This is a carefully balanced work containing threads that Golden Globes and the Oscars voters love, such as political breast-beating of the type seen in 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, a nominee for Best Picture. This they have achieved, without sacrificing the tension of a hostage procedural drama and the thrill of an action movie set on the high seas.