Fact or fiction, it's a gripping thriller
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (PG)
BRITISH director Paul Greengrass's reel adaptation of a real-life hostage ordeal is a taut thriller that not only captures a tense hostage situation, but also delves a little deeper to explore the moral contradictions we face in a globalised world.
The opening sequence shows Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) engaging in some rather banal conversation with his wife while leaving his suburban home in the United States for the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, which is docked in Oman.
But the film soon cuts across the world to Somalia, where the fevered desperation of the villagers and lawlessness of the Somalian coast provide the counterpoint to the middle-class, corporate world Capt Phillips inhabits.
From then on, crisis after crisis besets the giant container ship which, while a behemoth, eventually falls prey to a small band of determined pirates in their worn fisherman's skiff.
The four Somalians break into the ship's bridge, taking the captain hostage. The leader of the band of pirates, Muse - played by neophyte Barkhad Abdi - brazenly declares: "I am the captain now."
The former Somalian refugee's performance is arresting, and he comes off well beside veteran Hanks, who convincingly portrays an everyman relying on his wits to survive a life-threatening crisis.
Beyond the action, the interaction between captain and pirate illuminates some of the context which has made piracy a scourge in the Gulf of Aden since the early 2000s. Pirate activity has slowed since with increased anti-piracy measures.
References to warlords, illegal fishing and the lack of other viable means to make a living in war-torn Somalia give us a glimpse into what drives Muse, and help us understand his reckless refusal to give up even when his ragtag crew of four is faced with the full power of a US Navy warship.
The finale is finely orchestrated, and the director builds up the tension expertly with deft editing.
So, while the inevitable, bloody climax had already been broadcast in headlines in 2009, the execution of the final scenes has a visceral and emotional impact that also owes a lot to Hank's accomplished acting.
Greengrass chose to cast Somalians and to film on real ships instead of a set which, combined with a heavy use of shots from hand-held cameras, effectively convey a sense of realism.
But there are already several disputes surrounding the authenticity of the film's version of events: These range from the number of shots the US Navy Seals fired at the pirates to accusations that Capt Phillips was the one who put his crew in danger rather than the hero he has been portrayed to be.
His crew are suing him for ignoring warnings to stay out of pirate-infested waters to save his company money.
The movie, based on the captain's account in his book titled A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals, And Dangerous Days At Sea, is well-crafted cinematic entertainment and is, perhaps, best watched as fiction.