Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenplay: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Adbi, Faysal Ahmed
Synopsis is here
I’m still trying to figure out in my mind if Captain Phillips is a stunning film all together, or if the films climax is so strong that we forget that its first act feels quite plain. I considered the film that helped make Greengrass such a viable director in America; United 93 and found myself more engrossed with how that film looked at preparation and meditation. United 93 had a perfect balance of dread and procedural in its beginning, with its quiet moments betraying the impending chaos. Here Greengrass tries a similar thing but with less success to the tone. We see the films two captains going through their routines, blissfully unaware of how both will place each other through their paces. Phillips (an on form Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener in a small cameo) debate their son’s future before he sets off for his long haul. On the other side we find Adbuwali Muse (Adbi) lead a group of Somali pirates towards Phillips ship in search of ransom.
Greengrass’ ace in the hole, much like United 93 and Green Zone, is his ability to remind us that there are two sides to the story we’re watching. The time we spend with the pirates is vital, as we witness just what survival means to them. Unfortunately while the build up of character is needed for later on, there’s a distinct lack of urgency and blandness towards proceedings I cannot place my finger on. I can honestly say I can’t remember too much of the film before the clash of cultures.
Once Muse and Phillips meet, the screws begin to tighten. The idle chit chats and work grumblings that littered Phillips’ ship before are exchanged for frightened glances and hushed tones. The Pirates invade the ship both visually and orally. Their demands are yelled at a near unintelligible pitch and tensions accelerate to their peak because of this alone. The fear of their guns is obvious, but the combination of this along with the alien sound of another language being screamed constantly brings a worry we don’t often think about. Is someone demanding for you to do something or a commanding someone else to shoot you? This maybe based on a true story and yet I still found myself gripping my chair arms until my knuckles went white. I feel now it’s important for you to look at my profile picture as you will then realise the extremity of the tension.
From that moment on, Greengrass’ powerful use of space takes hold. We alternate from tight claustrophobic close ups of desperate faces before switching to vast landscape views which show a lifeboat as a mere pin prick on an endless sea. Like Gravity; power of Captain Phillips comes from just how powerless the protagonists are rendered. Both films are also superb at using tech to shove us within their characters headspaces. Twenty years ago, this film would seem an even more arduous task to comprehend. The work of Greengrass’ crew is overwhelmingly intricate, that I’m not surprised that more nauseous viewers avoided it due to seasickness. It’s that seamless.
The cast are equally unerring with Barkhad Adbi and Faysal Ahmed keeping up with the ever dutiful Hanks at every step. It’s important to remember that these are first-time performers and their ability to show the right amount of intensity and humanity should be well noted. We should not enjoy their acts, but the displays shown by the actors create an empathy that is difficult to attain.
Like all filmed true stories, Captain Phillips clearly takes liberties. It’s amusing to see that Phillips does the same walkie talkie move I witnessed two days after when I watched Harrison Ford in Air Force One (if that was actaully done was it life imitating art?). It’s also clear that the pirates run under certain archetypes. We have The Captain, the Kid, and the hot head all on show so it’s fair to say that there is a certain poetic licence in play. Yet while it’s based on true events, we’re supposed to gain the feel of what it’s like and not a full documentation. There are places to gain “more truth” I came for the film. And this is what Greengrass brings after a rather mundane beginning.
I watched this on the opening weekend of Catching Fire and the film has already seemingly dropped out of critical discourse, as is the way of many movies these days. Would people still be writing about Phillips if the beginning was stronger, or is this how we treat all films these days? That seems a shame if it’s the latter as Greengrass’ final stunning moments hit harder than many others films complete running times. That in itself is worth talking about alone.