Silver Screen: Captain Phillips ****
When he’s not making zippy action movies with Matt Damon (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Green Zone), director Paul Greengrass specializes in tightly focused docudramas. Captain Phillips is the third such film in a kind of unofficial trilogy that includes Bloody Sunday and United 93. All three movies are notable for their tight timelines, deliberate but fleet pacing, and a just-the-facts-ma’am dedication to realism that gives the impression that they are presented without commentary, the latter of which is somewhat deceptive.
In 2009, off the coast of Somalia, a band of pirates conscripted by a warlord and led by the very young Muse (Barkhad Abdi) boarded and seized control of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship carrying supplies and food aid to Africa. Tom Hanks plays the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, as an empathetic but brusque leader whose all-business attitude seems a little dour at first, but proves essential during the crisis. Phillips is old-school, and also kind of old, and as such is the perfect hero for working-class middle-age small-C conservative white guys who see themselves as holding the line between professionalism and slipshod workmanship, between proper procedure and the gentle anarchy of self-indulgence. Though no such lines are ever spoken aloud, we can imagine Phillips complaining about entitlement, the lack of craftsmanship in the modern workplace, the ills of participation-trophy culture, and how football players in the 1970s didn’t feel the need to do elaborate dances after they scored touchdowns.
Phillips is cool in a crisis-- think a maritime version of that other real-life older white-guy hero captain, Sully Sullenberger. Phillips rallies his crew when danger looms and keeps everyone following antipiracy protocols, even if those protocols seem obviously lacking. Phillips succeeds for awhile, but Muse’s opposite crew of desperate young men eventually boards the ship and overpowers the unarmed crew.
The film is based on Phillips’s own memoir, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, which is itself a bit of a spoiler. Trivia-minded newshounds may also remember the climax of the incident, when the Navy SEAL sniper team took a bold risk to save the day in what became heralded one of the first big successes for the Obama administration, before the famous photo of the President presiding over the capture of bin Laden, and also after he destroyed the foundations of democracy by trying to kill us all with affordable healthcare.
Knowing what will happen detracts surprisingly little from the suspense. Captain Phillips is, in fact, almost unbearably tense at times. Greengrass favors a darting, weaving camera and rapid edits, yet he’ll allow an individual scene to play out to its full potential. Greengrass controls chaos as well as any director alive, lending the action a frenetic kineticism that somehow never disorients the viewer. It’s a talent that comes especially in handy during the frantic scene in which the ship is taken. Greengrass, who so expertly detailed the hijacking of United flight 93, lays out in meticulous detail exactly how pirates use their speedy, maneuverable watercraft to confound and catch up to much larger vessels in the open water.
Structurally, Captain Phillips, which was written by the talented Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach), follows a similar structure to United 93. Greengrass charts the preparations of both the captors and their victims on the fateful mornings in question, using a detached style that seems devoid of commentary. It seems almost like simple cataloguing-- this is what this group of men did, and this is how another group of men reacted-- without the need for any flag-waving from the heroes or moustache twisting from the villains. Yet neither movie is quite so unbiased as they may seem. That’s less problematic in 93, where the September 11 hijackers had already been profiled and contextualized by the media, but a bit more so here. Greengrass presents a few glimpses of the desolation of life in Somalia, but it’s not much of a primer, and by the movie’s final hour the pirates seem like little more than generic drug-abusing mercenaries who might get mowed down in a Rambo sequel.
There are a lot of men in both the Somali and American crews, but ultimately Greengrass is true to the title: This is Captain Phillips’s movie, and it all hangs on Hanks. He’s fantastic throughout, though the real power of his portrayal doesn’t become clear until the final, wrenching scene. When at last Phillips does break down in shock, the restraint he’s shown in holding himself together becomes all the more significant. Hanks has kept his charisma in check and his affect nearly flat and emotionless, and when it’s all uncorked it’s an incredibly poignant moment, one of the best of his career.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.