Dramatising the real-life hijacking of an American freighter by Somali pirates, Captain Phillips sees docudrama master Paul Greengrass occupying safe creative waters. Of his previous work, there’s a particularly close resemblance (in both style and structure) to 2006’s United 93 – another moment-by-moment recreation of recent history that balanced macro geopolitics with close-framed, claustrophobic terror.
But where the earlier film presented a fated collective, the title of Captain Phillips indicates a more conventional focus on a single, heroic individual – making the lead character’s casting as vital to the picture’s success as Billy Ray’s taut screenplay and the director’s kinetic flair. Thankfully, a bearded and Bostonian Tom Hanks has rarely been better, his everyman persona perfectly suited to the material and his escalating desperation reaching unbearable levels at the climax. Indeed, the closing scene’s visceral impact is so pronounced that the film’s less successful aspects (in particular, some unsubtle attempts at socioeconomic commentary) retreat from mind like backwash from a hull.