After the trials his character faced in Castaway, it’s astonishing how anyone could convince Tom Hanks to go back to sea. But back to the troubled waters he goes in John Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, the Opening Gala screening for this year’s BFI London Film Festival, part one of the Hanks bookend we’ll be seeing at this year’s festival.
Known for this multiplex friendly blockbusters such as The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, John Greengrass seemed an unlikely choice to approach the harrowing story of Captain Richard Phillips. Not that Greengrass’ showreel didn’t fit the bill when it comes to high stakes thrillers but more would he be able to approach such a story with the appropriate sensitivity needed when creating a biopic, indeed one that is relatively fresh having only occurred in 2009. My concerns were of course unfounded.
Over recent years, Somalia has come to be analogous with pirates, perhaps an association built on Captain Phillips’ ordeal that gained worldwide media attention when his container ship, the Maesrk Alabama, was hijacked by a small crew of armed Somali pirates and he found himself held hostage. But in Greengrass’ intelligent thriller, this familiar world of family and media is long gone, instead leaving us trapped on the boat together with the pirate captors and Phillips as the terrifying tale plays out. While we know the story has a happy ending – in that the hero lives to tell the tale and indeed co-authored the book, A Captain’s Duty, that inspired the screenplay – Greengrass applies the taut structures from his mainstream films and injects them into an incident that is so horrifying and unfathomable to us our brains could probably only process it through this veil of fiction.
The truth is, much like Hanks’ stunning performance, Phillips’s character is what drives the story. Matched by the leader of the pirates, Muse, played by the unsettling yet mesmerising Barkhad Abdi, the relationship between these two men, both fighting for their freedom in many respects be it physical or financial, is surprisingly thought-provoking. Phillips’s calm and rational manner from the moment every seaman’s worst nightmare becomes a reality to the relationships he develops with his captors, demonstrates that even in the most dire of circumstances, we must retain our humanity else we risk becoming as savage as those who entrap us.
Emotional as it is thrilling, Captain Phillips sees Greengrass elevate himself far beyond template blockbusters in this superb biopic, charting a modern tale of survival.
Captain Phillips screened as the Opening Gala on Wednesday 9 October.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival, in partnership with American Express, takes place until 20 October 2013. View the full programme online: www.bfi.org.uk/lff