Get ready for awards season.
The first flotilla of Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy Award contenders is making its way to our multiplexes.
And the first Oscar hopeful to navigate critical and commercial waters is Paul Greengrass’s docudrama, ‘Captain Phillips’.
The former ‘World In Action’ journalist turned director has made a name for himself in Hollywood as someone who can handle high octane action movies.
As the director behind the two best movies of the Jason Bourne franchise – ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ in 2004 and ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ in 2007 – Greengrass gave us Matt Damon in the thick of frantic car chases through Goa and Moscow, the assassination of a Guardian journalist in London’s Waterloo Station and a stunning climax in New York.
Greengrass teamed up again with Damon in the smart 2010 Iraq conspiracy thriller ‘Green Zone’ featuring Greg Kinnear and Brendan Gleeson.
However he is at his best when dramatising real life events as he proved with his stunning 2002 docudrama, ‘Bloody Sunday’.
Anchored by a powerful central performance from James Nesbitt as Ivan Cooper, Greengrass’s movie recreated the terrifying massacre of 13 civilians at a civil rights march in Derry~Londonderry by the Parachute Regiment in 1972 (a 14th person died later).
Greengrass’ social realist style was perfectly suited to this adaptation of journalist Don Mullan’s book ‘Eyewitness Bloody Sunday’. The director brought the camera and his audience right into the heart of the action.
By casting former soldiers alongside established actors and by deploying natural cadences of everyday speech, he only heightened the authenticity of ‘Bloody Sunday’.
Greengrass repeated the same trick in 2006 with the jaw dropping ‘United ’93′ about the hijacking on 9/11 of a flight from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco.
Flight 93 was the only hijacked plane never to reach its intended target, crashing into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania
Again the director deployed natural dialogue, documentary-style cinematography, editing and actually went a step further by mixing professional actors with real life participants in the events of 9/11, like Ben Sliney, to convey the horror and powerlessness of those onboard the United Airlines flight.
What was also striking about ‘United ’93′ was its focus on the perpetrators as well as the victims – filming them at prayer before they headed to Newark to commit their act of terrorism.
Greengrass was not afraid to humanise the terrorists and showed how the panic and fear on the hijackers’ faces mirrored the panic and fear of the passengers and crew.
Compassionate, respectful, brave and unbearably tense, ‘United ’93′ packed one hell of an emotional punch – building up into an almighty crescendo at the end of the movie as the passengers heroically overcame their captors but ultimately lost their lives.
Despite making many critics’ top ten lists, ‘United ’93′ inexplicably garnered only two Oscar nominations (with Greengrass nominated for Best Director), while the Academy decided to honour Martin Scorsese for his work on ‘The Departed’.
Now Greengrass is back with another story ripped from the headlines – the capture by four gun toting Somali pirates of the MV Maersk Alabama cargo vessel, 240 nautical miles southeast of the port of Eyl.
‘Captain Phillips’ begins with Tom Hanks as the eponymous hero, packing his bags at home for Oman where he is to board and take charge of a US cargo vessel bound for Kenya.
Like ‘Bloody Sunday’ and ‘United 93′, the film starts off with a comfortable jog, as we see Phillips and his wife Andrea, played by Catherine Keener, discuss family issues on their way to the airport.
But it quickly picks up pace as Phillips boards the ship in Oman, notices some security issues and, following a warning from the British maritime agency, starts to put his crew through a security drill about a pirate attack.
In Somalia, we see warlords driving into a crowded village and badgering locals at gunpoint about the need for them to generate ransom money by capturing a cargo ship.
Greengrass focuses in this sequence on the initially subdued Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse – a hugely impressive performance by newcomer Barkhad Abdi – who handpicks a crew to take part in an attempt to hunt down a cargo vessel which he will storm with another pirate crew.
The director expertly ramps up the tension, with two rickety speedboats containing heavily armed pirates remarkably turning the mighty MV Maersk Alabama into their prey in a thrilling high speed chase on the high seas.
Phillips and his crew push the vessel to the limit, with the Captain ultimately foiling the pirates by pretending to call upon the US Air Force to protect them.
But it isn’t long before Muse and three of the pirates are back, minus the other team, and opening fire on the MV Alabama Maersk crew, in a nailbiting and ultimately successful pursuit.
When they get onboard and seize control of the ship, Muse barks at Phillips, who he calls Irish: “I’m the Captain now!”
Phillips has ordered the crew to hide on the ship and frustrate their captors’ efforts.
And the beauty of the cat and mouse game that unfolds is that it keeps audiences on the edge of their seats and never lets up throughout the movie, with the US marines eventually deployed to end Captain Phillips’ ordeal.
Tom Hanks turns in his best performance for some time – adapting well to the demands of a social realist drama. It would be a huge surprise if he isn’t Oscar nominated.
Hanks has repeatedly shown he is not afraid to stretch himself and this role is demanding as the climactic sequences show.
But it would also be criminal if Barkhad Abdi doesn’t make the awards shortlists.
It is an absolute joy to watch this inexperienced actor hold his own in several verbal duels with an acting heavyweight like Hanks who, you sense, is clearly relishing their interplay.
Abdi and his fellow pirates, played by Mahal M Ali, Barkhad Addirahman and Faysal Ahmed, perfectly capture the nervousness, fury and confusion of a gang who are seriously out of their depth.
There are solid supporting performances too from Catherine Keener, Michael Chernus as the MV Maersk Alabama’s First Officer Shane Murphy and Chris Mulkey, of ‘Twin Peaks’ fame, as senior crew member Josh Cronan.
The interplay between Hanks and Abdi only serves to highlight the quality of Billy Ray’s screenplay which rams home its message about the huge gulf between the US and Africa when Phillips, on discovering his captors are fishermen, remarks: “There’s got to be something other than fishing and kidnapping people’,
This prompts a shattering response from Muse: “Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.”
Greengrass turns to veteran cinematographer and Ken Loach collaborator Barry Ackroyd to capture the claustrophobia of ocean life which he does well and he also handles the action set pieces confidently.
They are ably assisted by Christopher Rousse’s thrilling editing.
And the bombastic musical score by Henry Jackman is perfectly suited to this gripping tale.
‘Captain Phillips’ is a stirring addition to Greengrass’s body of work and it sets the bar very high for the Oscars.
You will do well to find a better acted and better constructed film this year in what is A fitting companion piece to Tobias Lindholm’s equally gripping Danish made Somali pirate drama ‘A Hijacking’.