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Film Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (2013; Directed by Paul Greengrass)

The true-to-life story of the hijacking of an American container ship by Somali pirates and the taking of its captain as a hostage provides the fodder for this latest taut, hyper-realistic thriller from English director Paul Greengrass. Despite a clarity of vision, a high level of technical craftsmanship, and extremely effective lead performances, Captain Phillips is hamstrung by the diminished dramatic punch resulting from widespread knowledge of its ripped-from-the-headlines narrative. It also becomes a ham-handed exercise in United States Navy hagiography in its final hour, as the audience’s rooting interest is cynically directed into the camp of the military-industrial complex working to secure the titular hostage.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is the Vermont-based captain of the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000 ton container ship en route from the Port of Salalah in Oman to Mombasa, Kenya in 2009. Well aware of the dangers of pirate attacks in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa, Phillips’ fears prove to be prescient as his ship is pursued and eventually boarded by four young Somalian men armed with AK-47s under the command of Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Phillips and Muse test each other’s mettle in a contest of minds and wills which eventually leads to the pirates departing the Maersk Alabama on a lifeboat with $30,000 in cash and Phillips as a hostage in hopes of greater ransom rewards. Unfortunately for the pirates, the first successful hijacking of an American vessel since the early 19th century sets the superpower’s military might into ruthlessly efficient action. Muse is captured, his fellow pirates are shot dead by Navy SEAL snipers, and Phillips is freed to return to his family and pen a bestselling memoir of his experiences. Apologies for spoiling anything, but the public record tells us as much.

For an American public stung by the ambiguous Bush Administration misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan which the new President Barack Obama was quietly winding down early in his first term, the swift and successful resolution of this pocket crisis was a positive shot of morale for a nation whose self-image is never far from the battlefield, literal or figurative. Greengrass’ film, shot in the shaky-cam cinema verité style that the acclaimed director crafted into his trademark on the last two Matt Damon-featuring Jason Bourne movies and United 93, is similarly a cinematic caffeine jolt. Its stark, bloody-minded realism and finely-tuned technical construction should ratchet up its tension as it goes on, but as the inevitable, acknowledged endgame approaches, Captain Phillips becomes less tense, indeed at times kind of boring.

The strong naturalistic acting cannot be faulted for this curious tedium. Even though he’s never anything but recognizable, Hanks often vanishes into the credible ordeal of Phillips. He’s not performing, he’s being; his blubbering, near-helpless response on the Navy ship after being rescued interestingly shades the resourceful heroism he showed during the crisis with heavy emotional vulnerability. The naturalistic effect is amplified by surrounding him with Abdi and his non-professional-actor henchmen, who mostly do not speak English onscreen but never fail to convey every tone and emotion required, from danger to desperation to pain and even longing. Abdi in particular is an impressive natural with an unpredictable swagger that invests his thin frame with considerable menace.

What ultimately handcuffs Captain Phillips is the political ramifications that it can’t help but represent. The script by Billy Ray (who also penned the screenplay for The Hunger Games) prefaces Phillips’ voyage into deadly danger with a conversation between him and his wife (Catherine Keener) in its opening scenes. Speaking of their children’s career prospects, Phillips tells his wife that it’s an uncertain and ruthlessly competitive world in which their offspring are coming of age. Out at sea, he’s faced with a much harsher manifestation of those unforgiving forces at work in the global economy, but Ray’s script suggests not-so-subtly that it’s all connected in a long unbroken chain of haves and have-nots.

Muse shares with Phillips his endearingly simplistic materialistic dreams of America, of moving to New York and buying a car (Abdi himself moved from Somalia to Minneapolis and worked as a chauffeur). And he does get to America, but only to stand trial and while away the next few decades in an Indiana prison; the irony registers itself ever so briefly on Abdi’s face as he’s told officiously about his coming fate. When they first take over the ship, Phillips tries to placate the pirates by claiming that the Maersk Alabama is transporting food to Africans, but Muse scoffs at the West’s uneven, ineffective aid, which has neglected his homeland and left it a chaotic, violent feudal state divided between warlords. “We’re fisherman,” Muse insists to Phillips, but outside forces have depleted the stocks on which they rely for their subsistence and so they must cast their lines in murkier waters.

Captain Phillips can’t buy completely and effectively into its globalization critique angle, however. Greengrass and Ray sketch the social issue outline but never fill it in. What occupies the space instead is an authoritarian martial wet dream of three warships and a crack team of Navy SEALS pitilessly bringing down the blow of the American big stick onto frightened, desperate, destitute foreign teenagers with guns. The filmmakers are clearly aiming for a celebratory fist-pump from the audience when the masculine mastery of the U.S. of A is established beyond doubt, and the box office returns seem to confirm that they got it (Captain Phillips more than quadrupled its modest budget in worldwide box office takings).

True, what happens onscreen is what happened in the Indian Ocean in 2009, and fidelity to true events is a laudable mantra to Paul Greengrass in a way that it rarely is to Hollywood filmmakers. But there’s a grim, joyless march of inevitability towards the desired result that lessens the engagement. The ratcheted tension is never greater or more compelling than when the pirate skiffs are chasing down the container ship, but its rapid dissipation in the closing act could have been compensated for with a sympathetic turn. Had Greengrass turned his tightly-wound thriller into a tragedy in its final movement, it might have constituted a more compelling accomplishment. As it is, the hammer blow of the powerful against the powerless is carried on the level of an action climax. And it is neither fun, exciting, or enlightening in the final analysis.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. April 6, 2014 at 4:35 am

    I imagine if you already know the story, it’s less powerful; I didn’t and the film packed a punch for me. Good review, even if I don’t wholly agree!

  1. October 20, 2014 at 8:13 pm
  2. November 25, 2015 at 8:00 pm
  3. March 21, 2016 at 10:11 am

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