‘Captain Phillips’ movie: ‘Incomplete’ and ‘less than completely satisfying’
In Paul Greengrass’ thriller starring Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips, the titular Captain is a merchant ship’s skipper whose cargo vessel, the MV Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates in March 2009. The event became worldwide news in nearly real time after the Captain was taken hostage by the pirates, who fled the merchant vessel in one of its lifeboats. In short order, the four pirates, with Captain Phillips under armed duress, found themselves pursued and surrounded by several American naval war vessels intent on preventing the Captain from being taken to Somalia – the inference being quite clear to all.
Mostly adapted from the Captain’s memoir – a book with the unwieldy title A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea – Captain Phillips is conversely taut and slack; culturally savvy and naive; politically astute and manipulative; emotionally sincere and embarrassingly overwrought.
Given the source material, Captain Phillips is skewed towards the Captain’s recollections. Fair enough: to the victor go the spoils, and the Captain survived the harrowing events; so he is the one who gets to tell the story. However, this approach does not necessarily make for the best storytelling, and it certainly does not make for a complete story – even if true. Harrowing as it is, Captain Phillips mostly feels incomplete and thus less than completely satisfying.
‘Captain Phillips’: The two captains
Despite its title, Captain Phillips begins with two captains preparing for work on different sides of the planet. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener, in a thankless role) chat about ordinary things as they make their commute: the weather, the kids, the future. Meanwhile, in a Somali village near the shore, a former fisherman named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) picks a crew for his excursion into the same waters. There is no talk of the weather or children or the future. These things do not matter in Somalia.
We know the two men will meet, we know what will happen, we even know who will survive. None of this knowledge directly undermines the film’s events. Paul Greengrass is known (and was perhaps hired) for his ability to tell stories about historical events and imbue them with a sense of urgency.
Director Paul Greengrass: ‘Cinéma vérité style’ creates ‘sense of immediacy’
In fact, Captain Phillips bears the definite look and feel of a Paul Greengrass film. Its cinéma vérité style had previously informed the director’s work as a documentarian, his early TV dramas, and mostly notably his 2002 film Bloody Sunday, an account of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre of Northern Irish activists by the British. Shot in documentary style, Bloody Sunday had a sense of immediacy that was appropriately disturbing.
Similar techniques are seen in Greengrass’ Bourne films and even in The Green Zone, which is set in the early days of the second Iraq War. But mostly notably, they can be found in his depiction of the events of September 11, 2001, on United 93. It’s a stylistic stamp and it’s effective – even as it becomes ever more familiar and thus less interesting.
‘Captain Phillips’ ‘misses the forest for the trees’
Yet, style is not Captain Phillips’ central problem; the film simply misses the forest for the trees. Captain Phillips is about the fate of the titular Captain. Again, a reasonable subject, but it’s the one question we already know the answer to. As previously noted, this was a worldwide news event covered in nearly real time, and the Captain wrote a book of memoirs.
So, among the issues to be explored regarding the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama, the Captain Phillips filmmakers chose the least interesting angle. A more interesting question would have been: Why are these fishermen now pirates when for decades they were content to be fishermen? In fact, this very question is raised and dismissed by Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray in a matter of four or five lines – and that’s it. Instead, in Captain Phillips we get United 93 on a container vessel with a slightly better outcome. Fair enough.
Captain Phillips (2013). Director: Paul Greengrass. Screenplay: Billy Ray; based on Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty’s book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea. Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Catherine Keener, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Omar Berdouni, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky.
Mahat M. Ali, Faysal Ahmed, Tom Hanks Captain Phillips photo: Sony Pictures.