It's hard to do the docudrama right. Those movies you see promoted with the line, "based on a true story," often take liberties with what really happened, or struggle within the constraints of the real-life story they are portraying.
It's therefore difficult to create tension in a film where we already know what is going to happen, and yet British director Paul Greengrass has become something of a master of the genre. Bloody Sunday, based on the 1972 shootings in Northern Ireland, and United 93, set on one of the hijacked planes during 9/11, were both riveting action thrillers that brought the historical events to life in captivating detail.
His latest, Captain Phillips, which opens this year's London Film Festival, deals with an event which still feels fresh in the mind, the hijacking of US cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, by Somali pirates in 2009. Tom Hanks stars in the title role as the experienced captain who finds himself trying to outwit and outmanoeuvre the gunmen attempting to seize his ship. It's an extraordinary turn from Hanks, who after the noble failure of Cloud Atlas earlier this year provides his best performance in over a decade.
Captain Phillips is similar to United 93 in that this is a hijacking drama which focuses on how ordinary people react in extraordinary circumstances. Where this works perfectly is that the ordinary person is played by Hanks. From his most famous roles in films such as Sleepless in Seattle and Forrest Gump, he had always held the everyman quality that defines him against more masculine stars of the time such as Will Smith and Tom Cruise (just watch this James Bond spoof for proof).
It makes the heroic actions of Captain Phillips in the film all the more remarkable. A man with quiet dignity but quick-thinking mind, Hanks brings an authenticity to the drama a world away from the all-star action man Matt Damon plays in Greengrass's Jason Bourne films.
The familiarity Hanks brings is contrasted with that of newcomer Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the hijackers. A beanstalk of a man with large overbite and intense eyes, he similarly grounds the drama as an intelligent individual who unfortunately finds himself out of his depth, but knows that to return home a failure is impossible. The best moments of the film occur when Phillips and Muse and compared, trying to find the weak spots in each other while having to deal with dissent among their respective crews.
The first hour of cat-and-mouse games between the two sides is breathtaking, as shaky handheld cameras whizz around the boats, capturing the danger and instability of the situation. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's masterful neo-realist style ensures that for a film set almost completely at sea we are always at the heart of the action. But it's hard to maintain that kind of tension for long and, as the situation escalates and Captain Phillips finds his life on the line, both the story and character development stall.
But Hanks and Abdi make sure we're gripped until the very end. Stranded out in international waters, the hijacking of the ship is shown as a place where two worlds, the vast resources of the United States and the desperate poverty of the Somalians, collide. Both sides insist they are not playing tricks, but it is the mind games and battle for supremacy between the two that make this a satisfying and intelligent action thriller.
Captain Phillips is screening as part of the 2013 London Film Festival. The film will be released in UK cinemas nationwide from 18 October.
London Film Festival Reviews