' Cinema Romantico: Captain Phillips

Monday, October 14, 2013

Captain Phillips

For obvious reasons the title of this film is required to be "Captain Phillips." That is because its base material is the book recounting the real life Richard Phillips' excruciating trials at sea in 2009 when his container ship the Maersk Alabama was boarded by four armed Somali pirates which resulted in him being taken hostage aboard his ship's own lifeboat and a dramatic standoff with the US Navy. Thus, Captain Richard Phillips, played by Tom Hanks in a performance driven by behavior and reaction, with a full blooming Boston accent as a kicker, is front and center. Ultimately, however, "Captain Phillips" is very much about another Captain, even if the other Captain has bestowed himself the title with no real qualifications other than machine-gun intimidation.


The film opens with Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener, a single scene walk-off) in a minivan on the way to the airport discussing their sons' futures and, in turn, the changing world and its scary economy. We've seen this sorta thing before, sure, but then director Paul Greengrass does an interesting thing and cuts to the coast of Somalia where Muse (Barkhad Abdi, standing up to Hanks in character and acting) is enlisting only a precious few squabbling applicants to join him in rickety motorboats to invade a passing ship to hold for ransom. It is a scene straight out of Depression-era America, desperate men clamoring for paying tasks down on the dock. By no means is this meant to excuse the actions of the pirates, merely to paint perspective, that the requisite clock-ticking thrill-ride to come is not ethically delineated in picture perfect slices nor simply about patriotic heroics. To borrow a term Captain Phillips himself uses in the film, this is real world.

At sea, Phillips is shown to be level-headed but also a taskmaster, telling his men to enjoy their coffee even though the spin Hanks puts on the words each time betrays the fact he'd rather they put aside their coffee and get back to work. There has been rumination (and a lawsuit) regarding the real life Phillips' altruism, whether he had steered his ship into waters he should not have, à la Steve Zissou. That is something none of us outside of the actual event can know, even if we puff our chests and presume to, but I would argue this initial illustration of Phillips hints that he might very well do just such a thing while simultaneously still making crew safety a priority. A juxtaposition, they call it. But let's move on.

"Captain Phillips" was directed by Paul Greengrass, an Englishman who has sort of become the consummate re-teller of harrowing real-life drama (this completes a very unofficial trilogy coupled with "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93"). But his un-frilly, all-momentum approach can also be found in his more pulpy pieces, like the excellent "Bourne Supremacy", and here he demonstrates his unique ability to maintain both narrative hold and a sense of surrounding amid his many quick cuts and full-out freneticism.

As the pace picks up and the pirates board, we never lose our place in the story nor the place of the various men - good or bad - as they traipse around the endless deck of containers and through the darkened bowels of the ship. (Funniest line of the film? "Captain, the Maritime Emergency Line isn't answering." Fear not, American ship captains!) It is also in these moments, as Muse ignores with disgust an offer of $30,000 in the ship's safe and demands more hostages for more ransom, that Phillips proves himself to be graceful and clever under pressure, routinely placing the safety of his men first and his safety last. Muse proves himself to be alternately hotheaded and icy cool, both smarter than might you think and as foolish as you might expect, eventually wandering right into a trap but maintaining a serenity worthy of his Captain counterpart.


This is all quite tense, but it is when the four pirates abscond with Captain Phillips in the lifeboat and make for the Somali coast in a lethargic getaway that the film finds its most frightening and revealing level of tautness. The United States Navy, of course, becomes involved, with warships and SEAL units deployed, and a hostage negotiator brought in whose negotiations merely mask the real intent - prevent Phillips from reaching Somalia by any means necessary.

It's an extraordinary counterbalance - the claustrophobia of the five men in the lifeboat and the immense global scope taking place in the water just outside. The fact that you know precisely how this all turns out might have worked to subtract suspense, but instead fuels the strain felt by the men in those close quarters. Hanks does admirable acting here, maintaining his wits, but non-verbally communicating how his life is in peril not just from his captors but in the looming rescue attempt of those on his side.

This too is when Abdi is at his best. His cohorts come apart but he seems almost contentedly resigned, understanding that either his warlord commander kills him, the US Navy kills him or he makes it to America via an orange jumpsuit. These are his only options. Maybe these were the only options all his life. He and Hanks have a late exchange that is given away in the trailers but upon seeing it here with the whole weight of the preceding two hours heaped on their back, they reach a plain of truth that no righteous jibber-jabber can wash away.

That is why I desperately wish Greengrass had cut the last shot of the film, pulling back across the Indian Ocean, allowing for one final glimpse of the lifeboat and the warships. Perhaps he wanted to re-underline the true enormity of what took place, but the real enormity is seen in the two prior scenes. Two men, two reactions.

Survival. That's all it is. That's all any of this is.

1 comment:

Candice Frederick said...

hmmm i'm on the fence with this one...