Patriotic heroism belies brutal reality

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Master of the art, Tom Hanks gives one of his finest performances as kidnap victim Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips.
Starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi.
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Billy Ray, based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips
Drama, true story.
★★★★
For an Englishman, director Paul Greengrass has a great eye for telling unflinching, yet patriotic American stories.
His 2006 film United 93 , a dramatisation of the hijacking and eventual crash of United Flight 93 during the 9/11 attacks, was brutal intense and terrifying – all the more so because of a constant awareness that the characters’ actions were ultimately futile.
Captain Phillips – which is as celebratory of individual courage and American supremacy as United 93 – is likewise about a hijacking  –  the kidnapping and ransom of American merchant navy captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking of his ship the US Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates.
Only, told in an uncompromising, documentary style, this film is not focused on tragic, inescapable outcomes, but on a sense of veracity and on Phillips’ incredible bravery.
Phillips (Tom Hanks) is every bit the brusque, efficient merchant navy man putting his ship and crew before his own safety.
In Hanks’ skilled hands, Phillips’ fear-spiked determination is potent; the crew hide for their lives in the bowels of the ship, and their sweaty, grimy terror, just as tangible
Greengrass also takes pains to balance the storytelling, giving a glimpse into the brutal lives of the people off the Somali coast
We see how much pressure the Somali pirates, former fishermen, are under to pay warlords, and the bitter infighting that kind of pressure results in.
There’s only so much Green dhgrass can show of the other guys when the film is called Captain Phillips , however.
Somali arguments for piracy – that they are defending their coastline from foreign exploitation – are shown to be little more than excuses for brutality.
While there’s a sense that Greengrass is trying to be even-handed, he still seems too enamoured of American military competency – the Navy Seals play like an advert for awesomeness and composure –  to delve into the Somali characters in any depth.
Beyond pirate leader Muse, deftly played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, the other pirates are little more than caricature bad guys.
Ultimately, it’s Hanks’ sublime performance that undermines the balancing act most.
His final scenes are a true acting masterclass, effortlessly garnering the lion’s share of our pity.
A deeply affecting film and worthy of the Oscar nods it is bound to claim.

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