Captain Phillips (2013)
Greengrass and Hanks’ Somali hijacking film favors action and emotion over specifics
*** Warning ‘ere be spoilers ***
Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is a movie based on a 2009 incident of a container ship with a US captain by this name that Somali fishermen attempted to hijack, the MV Maersk Alabama , ironically then carrying 5,000 tons of African relief supplies. Compare the recent Danish film directed by Tobias Lindholm, A Hijacking (ND/NF 2013), based on several similar incidents, and combining focus on shipboard events involving Danish crew and Somalis, with tense ransom negotiations by the shipowners back at home. The Hollywood film eschews the corporate POV at home to which A Hijacking constantly returns but adds a famous star and, for action drama, a military operation (which actually occurred) to free the ship and subdue the young Somalis. Real negotiations never actually get going between pirates and shipowners of the huge Maersk container ship captained by Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks). Why would they — when a battleship and the Navy SEALS can be called in to sweep away the Somalis? This reportedly was the first seizure by pirates of a ship flying the American flag since the early 1800’s — but since It was the sixth vessel in a week to be attacked by pirates who’d gotten ransoms in the tens of millions of dollars, maybe the US overkill was a wise corrective move.
But seeing Greengrass’ film after Lindholm’s may leave you feeling cheated of the edgy drama of bargaining when big property values and human lives are at stake — which winds up being the suspenseful process depicted in Lindholm’s film, and has been happening a lot, in waters where Somalis lurk.
Maybe the Somalis this time aren’t experienced enough, but the Americans resort to trickery from the start, while in A Hijacking the Danes are just out to make the toughest deal they can. Greengrass, who made the strong docudramas Bloody Sunday and United 93and the highly entertaining second and third Bourne episodes, is definitely a world class action movie director. But in its emphasis on action Captain Phillips loses a lot of characterization detail and narrative specifics. What you do have is Tom Hanks, and despite a mundane beginning, he delivers some profoundly open emotion at the end in enacting the captain’s state of nerves and devastation when his ordeal is over.
Each of these two films is well done in its way. The higher profile Tom Hanks film will get as good reviews as A Hijacking and perhaps Oscar attention but it’s not yet clear how big it will be at the box office. Mainstream viewers may be put off not only by the lack of definition or subtlety among the Somalis but also a pretty muddled middle section and finale and a lot of subtitles, as well as the lack of any name actor besides Hanks.
Whereas viewers of A Hijacking will remember the slow, suspenseful negotiations, the company head and his hired advisor versus the pirates and the dire threats, tough dealing, and brutal consequences on the Somali pirates’ side. In the Danish film, the Somalis are pros at their game. In the American one, the Somalis are inexperienced young hotheads who constantly fight among themselves. InCaptain Phillips the American piracy experts and naval support’s plans aren’t fully revealed to us. Nor do we even know quite what they actually do other than lie to the Somalis and kill most of them. The contrast seems to fit differences between a small country’s need to use limited means to best advantage versus American exceptionalism. The Danes make a deal; the US uses brute force.
Hanks has suggested he found an interpretive key to the real Captain Phillips, of Vermont (whose New England accent he sporadically evokes), when informed by Phillips’ wife that he turns into a different, no-nonsense, ultra-serious man when he’s in command of a ship. Actually, though, in the very hasty initial at-home segment, Hanks’ captain and his wife (a barely glimpsed Catherine Keener) both seem pretty solemn, talking of little but how dangerous his work is and how much they both wish each time for it to be over.
Once the Somalis approach the ship, Phillips’ strategy is to hide most of his crew in the engine room. He stalls the Somali’s de facto leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), getting broken glass thrown down at the engine room entrance so the barefoot youngest Somali, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) gets a badly cut foot. The other personality that emerges among the hijackes is the wild-eyed Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), a tall hothead who constantly pushes for more violent and extreme action.
In the event, with these problems and the captain’s trickery and delays, Muse doesn’t have much of a chance to negotiate a ransom, though that, as in the Danish film, is what the Somalis were aiming for. None of the Somalis on the Alabama comes close to the cool, arrogant, experienced Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), who does the hijackers’ negotiating in Lindholm’s film. In Captain Phillips, the situation is dangerous but one-sided. To mix metaphors, Greengrass’ Somalis are loose canons but not tough cookies.
To fit Greengrass’ area of excellence, everything in Captain Phillips is boldly physical and visual. There’s a noisy, exciting scene on shore at the outset showing the Somalis’ chaotic selection process for the random hijacking mission, and many shots of the Maersk ship and the two skiffs, reduced to one when Phillips, in his first bit of trickery, scares the others off by broadcasting faked arrangements with a police vessel. The unique event in the Captain Phillips situation is Muse’s decision to take the captain off the ship in a sealed lifeboat. And then as in a Bourne movie we switch back and forth between control centers, including the special fighter ship that supervises a Navy SEALS operation that is never quite made clear.
Shut in the closed, claustrophobic lifeboat with the crazed Somalis, Phillips must endure a hair-raising and ear-shattering attack from the US Navy and weapons fired off by the hijackers, including a small rocket right next to him — noise almost as bad as this movie’s thumping, bone-shaking score by Henry Jackman. The most memorable moment in the film is when Phillips is taken on board the rescue ship to a silent sick bay where a nurse tries to calm him. Hanks does a unique impression of a man shaken, terrified, and speechless after a violent ordeal.
As Todd McCarthy notes in Hollywood Reporter, this is another one of an elite group of fall-release “survival stories,” including Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and All Is Lost, the latter two also included in the NYFF. Each has its very different and valid directorial style and feel. But I’d ultimately agree with blogger Joe Bendel of j.b.spins” who found Greengrass’ hijacking film inferior to Lindholm’s in almost every respect, its second half clearly weaker than its first. This isn’t up to Greengrass’ best work.
Captain Phillips, 133 mins., a Sony Pictures Studios release, had its world premiere at the gala opening night of the New York Film Festival 27 Sept. 2013, when it was screened for this review
Director: Paul Greengrass
Stars: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
Runtime: 134 min