London Film Festival 2013: Captain Phillips

There are several films at this year’s festival that are bound to attract attention in awards season – 12 Years a Slave, Gravity – and Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips is sure to be among them. The dramatisation of the real-life hijacking attack of US ship the Maersk Alabama stars Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks, and the film has received rave reviews around the globe and opened this year’s London Film Festival. Buoyed (no pun intended) by a sensational debut performance from Barkhad Abdi as pirate Muse, the film is a testament to Greengrass’s skill at turning historical events into gripping movie experiences. The director of United 93 and Bloody Sunday is famously modest on his brave choices to make historically-based movies. “I wasn’t very good at romantic comedies,” he joked at the film’s opening at the Festival last week. “I like films about what’s going on out there. These stories can take you out into the world and show you some of the complexities of it.”

Captain Phillips certainly demonstrates the complexity of the story it’s telling. A harrowing real life tale that pits an American crew against a group of Somali pirates, the film is based on ‘A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea’ the real memoir of the captain. While this means we do know Captain Phillips made it out of the ordeal alive, Greengrass manages to ramp up the tension in the film to put the audience through all the emotions of the characters.

Hanks himself spoke about the pressures and advantages of translating real-life material to the screen. The film is largely based on the real events and both Hanks and Greengrass have alluded to the importance of staying true to real events. “It’s not a documentary,” said Hanks. “I said to Rich
(the real Captain Phillips): ‘I’m going to say things you never said, I’m going to do things you did not do. But based on that, let’s get as close to the DNA of the authenticity as possible.’”

One of the biggest triumphs of the film is the portrayal of the 4 Somalis who board the US ship. The script, penned by Billy Ray, allows the pirates to have well-rounded characters, individual motives and backstories of their own. Staying away from overly-controversial territory, the film’s prologue explains that the men are acting out of financial desperation rather than for political or religious reasons. As the film depicts the respective plights of the two groups, their motivations and the audience’s emotions become blurred and the film cleverly shies away from placing
blame.

Greengrass has revealed that during the making of the film the group of actors playing the American crew were kept apart from the pirate actors. The scene in which the Somalis board the Maersk Alabama and Phillips meets Muse was reportedly the first time Hanks and Abdi saw each other, and the legitimate tension is palpable in the audience. This is a film that is genuinely emotionally immersive – gripping and realistic real-life events told in a dramatic and entertaining movie.

Captain Phillips was the Opening Gala at this year’s festival, with both screenings of the film selling out. A-list stars from the world of film like Hanks and Greengrass only help to boost the profile of the festival and Captain Phillips has been a huge part of the BFI’s marketing; this year
however it was Greengrass who was keen to praise LFF.

“We tend to underestimate [LFF’s] importance,” the Bourne Ultimatum director said during the festival’s opening. “We talk about some of the other festivals around the world, but what distinguishes this festival is that it’s a major festival in a major international filmmaking centre. That gives it a particular vibrancy.”

Tom Hanks in typical fashion had the last word on LFF’s importance. “It may put other film festivals out of business.” You heard it here first from Forrest Gump – definitely check out the London Film Festival in 2014.

Captain Phillips c. columbia picture industries, inc, all rights reserved
Captain Phillips c. columbia picture industries, inc, all rights reserved

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