I have a love-hate relationship with director Paul Greengrass, mainly but not exclusively because he’s credited with popularizing the use of “shaky-cam” cinematography in serious films. On the one hand, the style has become one of the laziest tools in the Hollywood toolkit, a way to affect “realism” with little to no real effort because the modern audience’s subconscious has been trained to associate hand-held camera work with home video or “live” footage. On the other hand, Greengrass himself is one of the filmmakers who uses it to great effect (most of the time.)
Said great effect is on full display in his latest film, Captain Phillips a dramatization of the Maersk Alabama Hijacking incident in which an America ship’s captain (Tom Hanks) was taken hostage by Somali pirates and later freed during a punishing raid by U.S. Navy SEALS days later. In some respects, it can be viewed as a spiritual successor to Greengrass’s celebrated 9-11 drama United 93 and if one were to include his deeply flawed but well-intentioned The Green Zone – with Matt Damon as a soldier in Iraq discovering that (oops!) those WMDs might not actually have existed – you’d have a kind of rough trilogy covering the beginning, middle and wind-down of what we called “The War on Terror,” even if the events of Captain Phillips are not so much adjacent to said War as flavored by it.
On its surface, the story sounds simple. So simple, in fact, that, in the absence of context and a few key details, you might question why it needed to be a major motion picture starring one of the biggest stars on the planet. On April 8, 2009, the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama was set upon by a small team of armed pirates off the coast of Somalia. Such hijackings (both attempted and successful) are common enough in that part of the sea that said pirates weren’t even pretending to try and rob the ship – they merely aimed to occupy it until the shipping company’s insurance men turned up with the money to get their employees freed. The operation went south, though, and the pirates wound up fleeing in a covered life boat with Captain Richard Phillips as a hostage. On April 12th, in an atypically public (for this sort of scenario) display of U.S. military power, a team of Navy SEALs rescued Phillips after taking out the remaining pirates with precision snipers.
So yes, a dramatic story… but by no means an automatic qualifier for this needs to be a movie NOW! It was, essentially, happenstances of politics, chronology and geography that made this the one act of modern piracy out of dozens that drew rapt attention (particularly in the United States.) Specifically, the taking of a U.S. citizen by pirates was framed as an early foreign policy challenge for President Barack Obama, at the time frequently criticized as weak and even anti-military by his political opponents. The very name “Somalia” was still inextricably linked in American minds with the Black Hawk Down disaster. And the clean wrap-up of the situation – on Easter Sunday, no less! – with Phillips safe and the pirates struck down with brutal efficiency, was a cathartic happy ending for an American public that hadn’t had many in awhile… Not to mention the event was a (there’s no less morbid way to put it) massive public relations coup for the Obama administration, beginning an unexpected collective-conscious link between SEAL actions and the reputedly “peacenik” President that would be cemented 2 years later with the killing of Osama bin Laden.
All that extra stuff is the reason why Captain Phillips gets to be a big-time Fall grown-up blockbuster starring Tom Hanks. Which is why it’s so surprising that none of it actually turns up in the movie itself. Here’s a movie dramatizing an event that is only widely known because of what it meant to those on the outside that decides to remain laser-focused on the inside – President Obama doesn’t appear, nor do any important members of the media or government. There are no scenes of the Maersk crew’s family members huddled around televisions while famous TV news personalities make expository cameos. The film is entirely concerned only with the procedural actions of three crews – the pirates, The Maersk and the Navy vessel that takes point on negotiations until the SEALS can get into position.
It’s also a film that’s almost obsessively resistant to politics or symbolism, which is rather vital considering the tinder box of race, class and national conflicts simmering under the surface of its scenario – The gaunt, visibly malnourished Somalis versus the comfortably well-fed American crew. Angry young black men with guns versus frightened older white men without. One of the pirates is undone by virtue of being too poor to own a pair of shoes. “There has to be some other way to make money,” Phillips entreats the pirate leader, only to be answered with “Maybe in America.” When the SEALs show up, they’re presented not as heroes or even as humans, but as something more like the personified wrath of an angry god – with the film offering no real opinion on them save for awe at their granite-hard professionalism. It can’t even be bothered to dwell on the dark irony that the Maersk’s cargo includes emergency food relief en-route for Somalia. Like Zero Dark Thirty and Greengrass’ own aforementioned United 93,” it’s a movie about people as people – not as symbols.
Greengrass is no sentimentalist, but he’s not made of stone either and that becomes the key to making this more than just docudrama. To say that the film shows enough of the pirates for you to emphasize with them would be a mighty stretch, but sympathy is certainly present. The first act gives us a fly-on-the-wall view of the workday for both the Somalis and the Americans, and we’re allowed enough of the sense of why the pirates do what they do to grasp their mindset – to say nothing of detachment and the commonness of violence in their lives. During the hijacking, the film draws tension from shifting power dynamics. The pirate’s true advantage isn’t their guns but language – they speak Somali and English, allowing them to communicate with eachother while keeping their hostages only as informed as the wish them to be. Likewise, Phillips and his crew are on their home turf (such as it is.)
The whole thing is anchored, appropriately, by the performances of the two actors playing the two captains. Appropriately, they’re even more mis-matched as movie-stars than their characters are as sea captains: Barkhad Abdi, who plays the nominal pirate leader Muse, is a Somali immigrant raised in Minneapolis (where parts of the film were shot) plucked from a local casting call despite having never acted in a film before; while Tom Hanks is, well … Tom Hanks – multiple Academy Award winner and just about the only person you could cast as Walt Disney and have people go: “Yeah, that makes sense.”
But here they’re pitched as equals, two quick-thinkers trying to out-think one another, and it’s a relationship (built entirely from a crackerjack, no-filler script and the chemistry of the actors) that keeps the crucial tension building even after we’ve met the SEAL Team and understand just how fearsomely inevitable their victory is and how staggeringly out-gunned the pirates actually are. Hanks has been on a roll lately (the only justification for his not having an Oscar for Cloud Atlas is that he has two of them already), but he’s rarely been as powerfully understated as he is here. This is a movie about heroism, but a heroism of keeping your wits and looking out for those in your care rather than action, which is difficult to pull of onscreen. Meanwhile, I’m not sure what kind of acting future can conceivably be awaiting Abdi (he’s rather expertly cast as embodying the American pop-cultural archetype of the desperate/dangerous Somali), but surely being able to keep pace with Hanks has to be worth something.
Captain Phillips could easily have been a simplistic action/rescue thriller or a maudlin made-for-TV potboiler, but instead it’s a powerful film even as it tries to strip the mythmaking out of a very human event that became a larger-than-life media moment. The kind of movie that makes the Fall prestige season not only tolerable, but worth looking forward to.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.