Monday, October 14, 2013


Exhausting and exhaustive, Captain Phillips is a process-oriented film of unrelenting tension. Detailing the true story of how, in 2009, a band of Somali pirates managed to board an American freighter in international waters off the coast of Africa and ended up holding the ship’s captain hostage for four days, the film’s approach finds the distance between us and them drawing small. The opening scenes are all about world economics, with two groups of men setting sail with very different, but ultimately convergent, goals. The freighter is loaded with cargo while Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) makes last minute checks, running down the corporate checklist. In a village in Somalia, a band of pirates are spurred to action by the local warlord, gathering boats and crew to go hunting for vulnerable targets in the ocean beyond their shores. They’re all in it for the money.

In the opening scene, the theme of global economic forces is made all too clear as clunky thematic exposition is spoken between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener). The world is changed, he says, wheels are moving, forces beyond their control. By the time the captain of the pirates (Barkhad Abdi) comes face to face with Phillips, he tells him their piracy is “only business.” Late in the film, he explains his boss will expect money when they return. “We’ve all got bosses,” Phillips replies. The film splits cleanly in two, the opening an extended setup that brings the freighter and the pirates into contact and crisis, leaving the second half dedicated to cutting between the military rescue operation and the increasingly claustrophobic and desperate events on board as a heist becomes a hostage situation. It largely shifts thematic gesturing to off-hand remarks, driving forward with ticking reportorial momentum.

The film reflects its preoccupations with process and business in its simplicity. A tense reenactment of a story that was all over the news in recent memory, there’s a factual frisson to the way the film unfolds. The screenplay by Billy Ray is, a clunky first scene aside, relatively restricted to jargon, strategy, and jostling for power and advantage in an increasingly difficult scenario for all involved. Though it could easily become an overpowering triumphalist picture, with one of the most likeable movie stars on the planet terrorized by third-world criminals and eventually rescued by the firepower of the United States, there is a remarkably balanced approach that finds the terror of the situation in how inescapable it becomes. Everyone is simply doing the job they’ve been given, responding to variables according to the best of their professional knowledge and abilities.

Hanks does strong, nuanced work here as a man with a professional imperative to keep his cool to save his crew and cargo, as well as an inner strength, his will to survive driving him to keep all parties from becoming irreparably inflamed. He’s not a hero, merely a smart, capable man who keeps a level head. The final stretch of the film, when he’s pushed past the breaking point and enters a state of shock, is some of the rawest acting Hanks has done in years. Abdi, as the leader of Phillips’s Somali captors, is clearly orchestrating a criminal and inexcusable act, but his performance captures shades of doubt and pride that prevent his characterization from becoming abstract villainy. He’s a desperate man in desperate circumstances, finding it hard to control a situation he thought would be easy ransom as it spirals out of control and it becomes clearer that it’ll be hard to make it out. It’s almost sad when, late in the film when it’s clear to all involved he and his men will more likely be captured or killed than receive riches, he’s asked why he continues to hold Captain Phillips hostage and replies that he’s come too far to turn back.

Directed by Paul Greengrass, the film jitters with his trademark shaky-cam verisimilitude. With exceptional action films The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, he helped set the standard for chaos cinema, painting action as scrambling sequences of elaborate franticness, pushing blockbuster cinema towards a standard of abstract adrenaline that few filmmakers could match. Many would borrow the techniques, but few could copy the effects. His you-are-there docu-thriller immediacy did claustrophobic wonders for his dread-filled United 93, a real-life disaster picture that valorizes the passengers who died diverting a hijacked airliner on September 11, 2001. In Captain Phillips, Greengrass brings a similar sense of weight and tension, a sense of enclosure of space and situation, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's widescreen framing refusing to open up. Even wide shots of ships at sea feel trapped, the weight of the suspense crushing down even there.

The film uses its sensations to simply recreate a recent event and it’s admirable how even-handed it manages to be. Even better, how the film refuses to give easy relief. The final minutes are extraordinary. The saving gunshots come fast, leaving the scene bloody and resolutely resisting celebration. Hanks’ final scene is not one of calm, but one of safety slowly quaking its way into a body still shaking with unbelievable stress. Greengrass leaves us with scenes much like those we’ve been watching the entire runtime, professionals simply doing what must be done. Tension may be released from this particular narrative, but the world goes on just as before.

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