Movie Reviews

'Captain Phillips': A masterclass in dramatic tension

By Anjali RaguramanMovies - 15 November 2013 12:00 AM | Updated 10:25 AM

'Captain Phillips': A masterclass in dramatic tension

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Rating: 4.5/5

If ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ had you on the edge of your seat, ‘Captain Phillips’ will send you careening over.

Based on real-life events that happened off the coast of Somalia in 2009,‘Captain Phillips’ is a dramatisation of the hijacking of a container freighter, the Maersk Alabama, as it passes through waters in the Indian Ocean.

Tom Hanks, as Captain Richard Phillips, puts his own life in peril to save his unarmed crew, who quickly realise how out of depth they are against four gun-toting Somali pirates. The impossibility of the situation, where a tiny fishing boat goes up against a 30-tonne freighter, is quickly diminished when Phillips announces “this is not a drill, this is a real-world situation” to his crew over the intercom.

The pressure builds steadily in this gripping drama, as Phillips and the leader of the Somali gang, Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi) face off. In a memorable scene early in the film, Muse says to Phillips, “Look at me, I’m the captain now”.

Barkhad Abdi (centre) as Abduwali Muse, the leader of the gang of Somali pirates, is a revelation in 'Captain Phillips'.

Even as a first-time actor, the assuredness in his eyes is utterly convincing as he inhabits his role as the pirate. It’s the crucial moment when the switch trips, and you realise that this skinny Somali crew of three might just be able to pull off the impossible.

What plays out is a story of two captains, who negotiate a cat and mouse game, where you never really figure out who has the upper hand. All the pirates want is money, and they know they can get a sizable bounty with the captain as hostage.

In the larger context, they are merely pawns in a more international operation involving military intervention, which is on its way to add to the fray that is already ensuing. While waiting for the outside world to react, you wonder: Is the navy going to get there in time? Is Phillips going to be saved? The tension is expertly built in this thriller with plenty of action and drama.


If there’s one thing Tom Hanks does well, it’s drama. He has an inexplicable way of dragging you into the action, consuming you and making you feel everything he is. As Captain Richard Phillips, Tom Hanks goes from the everyman to a heroic character. But he is equally vulnerable. The last, heartbreaking scene of the film, all five minutes of it, is an Oscar-worthy performance. 

The other cast members are almost forgotten in the presence of the relationship that plays out between Muse and Phillips. Even against a juggernaut like Tom Hanks, Abdi holds his own and is fearless. It was revealed that the actors were kept apart until their first meeting on the freighter. It was a brilliant move by director Paul Greengrass, because what plays out is raw and instinctive


In typical Paul Greengrass fashion (‘The Bourne Supremacy’), it is a thriller with a documentary feel. Shot on the sea, the epic scope of the production and his trademark shaky camera shots make the movie experience even more immersive.

Filmed at sea, the real-time adventure of the hijacking and tackling the hostage situation is captured.

What is compelling about Greengrass’ work is how he deftly handles serious subject matter based, keeping it populist enough so that everyone can appreciate it. And in his hands, it’s also a piece of cinematic gold.

No one is ever what they seem. The movie challenges perceptions in the same vein as ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, just as one man’s pirate is just another man’s fisherman, trying to make a living. You empathise with the characters, because ultimately, the story is about two men who are trying to survive and how they react under extreme circumstances.

'Captain Phillips' opens in cinemas 14 November