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I'm just a cook...
on 24 October 2013
Cinema has come a long way since Under Siege. The titular hero of this story is no expert in hand-to-hand or weapons and tactics. He's definitely not a cook.
Tom Hanks is Richard Phillips, captain of the Alabama cargo ship, en route to Mombasa via Somali no-man's water. Muse (impressive newcomer Barkhad Abdi) arrives with a handpicked crew of pirates, and they board the Alabama. Nail-biting tension and hostage-taking will follow. It's best that one goes into the film knowing no more.
Paul Greengrass is the best director working today in the authentic documentary aesthetic. He knows that the drama is in the detail. Captain Phillips' most thrilling moments are when Greengrass is most exacting and pedantic about characters' relative positions within the environment. That sounds kind of formal, but then Greengrass's shaky-cam does veil an essential precision. He focuses on the immediate situation, leaving us the viewers to picture it in the wider political context.
As with Kathryn Bigelow, Greengrass's anti-polemical style is occasionally a curse but mostly a blessing. The action may occur on the surface, but there's depth beneath the objectivity - perhaps best encapsulated in the image of three mighty US warships surrounding a tiny craft in international waters.
The implicit themes are globalisation and imperialism. The opportunism of the pirates is met with a defence based on an escalating chain of command. It's chaos versus structure; improvisation versus meticulous contingency planning. Money is nothing without an entrenched system to contain it and protect it. Sorry, Africa - we'll throw food parcels in your direction but we won't help you build long-term infrastructure plans, and you sure as hell can't step on "our" turf.
When the pirates are first approaching the Alabama, Muse presents his gang as seaborne law enforcers, and I couldn't help thinking of the United States' assumed position as "world police"...
More than anything, Captain Phillips reminds us of the power of Hanks and Greengrass, two servants of cinema at the absolute top of their game, and that should be recommendation enough. It's worth paying to see - please don't pirate it!