The European premiere of Captain Phillips was a fantastic way to kick off the 57th BFI London Film Festival at ODEON Leicester Square last night, with many of the cast and crew in attendance, including the film's star, Tom Hanks, and British director, Paul Greengrass. Greengrass introduced the film saying that he had wanted to work with Hanks for many years and that the experience was "everything I'd hoped for, and more".
Captain Phillips is an extraordinarily tense account of the 2009 hijacking of the US cargo ship Maersk Alabama, featuring one of the year's best performances from Tom Hanks. Speaking prior to the screening, Hanks said: "We all survived a journey in the SS Greengrass!"
Greengrass made his name with the two best Bourne films (Supremacy and Ultimatum, if you're wondering) but he's really at home detailing, in his hyperkinetic handheld style, the plight of ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Tom Hanks' Captain Richard Phillips finds himself in one such situation.
He's the captain of a US cargo ship carrying food and humanitarian aid around the Horn of Africa, waters that have become notorious for attempted hijackings by Somalian pirates. Phillips is warned of the threat as the ship beings its journey but before long, the ominous bleeps of the ships radar signifies two small skiffs approaching the Alabama at speed. He orders his crew into an emergency procedure, firing huge water hoses off the side of the ship and steering the ship in a zig-zag formation to increase the ship's wake. The measures temporarily keep the pirates at bay but overnight they re-group and attempt a fresh attack in the morning.
Anyone familiar with the story (or the trailer) will know that the hijackers are successful in boarding the ship but these scenes are expertly staged. There's no evident CGI, it looks like Greengrass took a huge cargo ship out into the ocean and filmed some people attempting to board it. In fact, the direction throughout is superb. He's been accused in the past of employing his trademark handheld, fast cutting style too rigorously, occasionally rendering scenes difficult to follow but that charge can't be levelled at him here. There's not a single moment in the film where it's not clear what's going on, who and where the protagonists are and what is at stake. It's a magnificent achievement.
The final hour of the film takes place on the ship's lifeboat with the US Navy following the boat, attempting to negotiate with the pirates. This is where the tension reaches almost unbearable levels. The claustrophobia of the lifeboat perfectly suits Greengrass' style and it is here where we get to learn more about the pirates. We're not asked directly to sympathise with them but we're given background into what has lead them to this course of action.
It's easy to forget (when he's directing films like Larry Crowne) that when it comes to carrying a film, there's almost no other actor in the world who can match Tom Hanks and he gives one of his very best performances here. Employing his best Mayor Quimby voice, his character is quickly established and his subsequent actions during the hijacking are entirely believable. You have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by his performance in the final scenes. He's also supported by newcomer Barkhad Abdi as the leader of the hijackers. It always amazes me when directors and casting directors pluck an unknown actor, seemingly from nowhere, and they deliver a performance of such intensity and depth. It all adds up to a film that can rank alongside the very best of 2013.