Neither of these films is ‘mumblecore’ or even independent, but the Safdie brothers come from that kind of no-budget background; their first film The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2009, directed by Josh, though Benny was involved in editing) has a very loose narrative centered on a woman who’s a kleptomaniac (I’ve seen it, and liked it, but I barely managed to write more than a sentence). It’s only with their last couple of features that they’ve really broken through, and perhaps that’s the involvement of bankable screen names, but if so their style is still very much firmly planted in the grainy textures of their 16mm roots, harking back to a certain kind of gritty 70s NYC-based crime thriller. In both films, there’s a propulsive energy that rarely seems to let up, as characters make bad decision upon bad decision, compounding their situation ever more precariously as the films continue. These are thrillers, but grounded in the characters and their struggles.
When I saw the trailer for this new movie many months ago, I have to say I was afraid it would be a triumphal story of an entitled white man single-handedly defeating the racial Other, though I perhaps didn’t take into account director Paul Greengrass’s involvement. As such, the end result is a movie that doesn’t follow the usual playbooks for this kind of story, and which engages with all its characters in a fair way. Greengrass after all has previous form with films based on real life events that take a sort of documentary aesthetic to their recreations: he gained early acclaim with made-for-TV docudramas before finding a bigger screen with Northern Ireland-set Bloody Sunday (2002) and most notably the gripping and claustrophobic United 93 (2006) about the 9/11 flight (not to mention that his forays into fiction in two Jason Bourne films have managed to retain this patina of realism). Therefore, it should have been no surprise that Captain Phillips is a tense and exciting thriller.
The film starts out on land with two matched prologues. One is set in Vermont where our eponymous Captain, Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), is getting a lift with his wife to the airport. He is on his way to Oman to head up the crew of the Maersk Alabama container ship which is travelling to Kenya. Phillips and his wife have a brief discussion of the ways in which life is getting tougher and how their (now grown) children will have to work harder to succeed than they did. And then we cross to a village by the coast in Somalia, all but undercutting that low level of American middle-class anxiety to show us lives that are already lived in extremes of poverty and deprivation. The local warlord arrives in his fleet of cars to order the local tribal elder to get together a band of hijackers, as they want another payday. Two skiffs are swiftly organised on the beach, one headed up by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who chooses three men from those crowding around him, before they head out into the oceans.
This is the set-up and from this point onwards, no more than ten minutes or so in, the film is entirely set out on the high seas, in the cramped confines of the container ship heading down past the Somali coast, and then the even more claustrophic life raft taking the pirates and Phillips towards the film’s denouement. Given the story’s genesis in a book written by Phillips about his experiences, it cannot be any surprise that he makes it to the end of the story, but the film is very careful to focus more attention on the pirates, whose story is rather less well-known. These four are not simply portrayed as dangerous enemies to our heroic captain, as one might expect, but as human beings acting as much out of duty as Phillips does, each (including the Captain) displaying their own blend of vulnerability and unexpected daring.
Indeed, aided by the fine acting of Abdi, Hanks and the minor players, all the characters are shown to be operating under a sense of compulsion that comes from places unseen. Where Phillips feels an obligation to his company that leads him to plot a foolhardy course through an area known to be dangerous, so Muse has a task that he knows he cannot return from empty-handed. Elsewhere, there’s the tribal elder in Muse’s village, the captain of the US warship sent to aid the Alabama and the commander of a Navy SEALs team of trained commandoes tasked to bring the hostage crisis to an end, all of whom are seen just following orders. On all sides, this maritime world is one of very carefully-delineated roles that allow for little exercise of free will, and is a nice change from the kinds of single-handed heroics that dominate action films in similar settings (Tom Hanks here is no Steven Seagal in Under Siege, nor even an Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October).
Given its limited range of settings, the film manages to create a fair amount of tension (even though we know how things will end for the Captain at least), and much of this is down to the claustrophic locations and grainy cinematography that keeps the camera tightly focused in on faces. The film also engenders plenty of empathy for its Somali characters, as much victims as anyone else in the story. Even at the end, there’s no triumph or release, no pat return to normality, and some of Hanks’s best acting — not to mention the most emotionally wrought scenes, functioning as a kind of catharsis for the audience — is reserved for these brief moments when the plot has all been wrapped up. From start to finish, Captain Phillips (the film if not the character) is totally in control, and ranks as probably one of Greengrass’s finest works so far.
Director Paul Greengrass; Writer Billy Ray (based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty); Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi برخد عبدي; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 5 November 2013.