If our recent historical repository of jarring cross-cultural events is running thin, it doesn’t show in the yearly frequency of Hollywood films based on them. Last year both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty took their focus to the middle-east, be it with vastly different intentions, the former existing as meta-factual entertainment. The other sought to journal a decade’s long hunt that cost this country a bit of its humanity in its search for revenge. Director Paul Greengrass has tackled such politically daring material before with United 93, focusing on the passengers aboard the eponymous 9/11 plane and their brave rise against the men aiming to crash it in DC. Now Greengrass tackles another kind of hijacking, but one that can’t afford to keep its morality as black-and-white as it was in United 93.
First chronicling the events leading up to the taking of the unarmed cargo ship Maersk Alabama, at which point it investigates the complete details of the event itself, Captain Phillips frames the entire experience through its titular protagonist, but not through his perspective. Tom Hanks gives perhaps his least movie star-ish performance to date, largely out of necessity to the film’s wider cultural focus. Though events are framed constantly within his vicinity, the film has little interest in turning him into a hero. It’s the so-called “heroes” that earn the brunt of the film’s scrutiny, implying obviously that it’s possibly better to be a soft-spoken pacifist than a criminal or a killer. Phillips doesn’t handle this “real world situation” with any obvious acts of self-aggrandizing sacrifice, his not-particularly-glorious physique factoring out an Jason Bourne style stuntwork on his part.
To allow a comparison to last year’s opening night film, Life of Pi, how the film opens and gets to its showcased spectacle is perhaps the most problematic aspect of it. Beginning with a scant explanation of Phillips’ family life, the film frankly cuts to the introduction of gaunt newcomer Barkhad Abdi’s band of pirates, living in conditions that would be dubious to call a home. Gripe as the instantaneous internet snipers might about the film depicting the pirates as cartoon villains akin to the shouting Iranians of Argo, the film does try painting them as more than just contemptible stereotypes. That said, it doesn’t quite succeed, for as much work is put into giving Abdi’s lead pirate Muse a conflicted identity, the other three pirates are given flat stock personalities. The innocent one, the crazy one and… the driver. One of the pirates truly only exists to be the driver.
Unfulfilled stereotypes aside, when the film does kickstart its propellers into high-stakes mode, the transition is forceful and jarring, even if it comes as literally expected. What makes gives these sequences a unique level of intensity isn’t the obvious superiority of the pirates, but the precise opposite. It’s clear these aren’t jadedly political terrorists, but volatile punks looking for a piece of the action. The film’s first half becomes a dank, heart-in-mouth chess game for dominance between the two opposing crews. This tale of two cities… er, ships, may end at the terrifying climax of the first half, but there’s still an hour to go when the film changes over into an international procedural in line with Kathryn Bigelow’s middle-east thrillers.
The spacial shift from tensely empty corridors to grimy and cramped interiors is as suitably jarring as the shift from ensemble stakes to personal stakes, as Phillips’ life is put solely on the line and the Navy is dispatched to negotiate his release from the childishly stubborn pirates. Muse says “Everything gon’ be alright” so many that one has to wonder if he even remotely believes that. As much as this shift should cue an entrance into more intimate relational territories, Phillips’ dialogue with the pirates never transcends anything other than patriarchal. That admittedly might have been too sentimental a move for the down-and-dirty Greengrass, but we don’t quite feel the wear and tear of the four days Phillips spends with these men.
Not that we get much of a chance for tear stained confessions, as it seems like Michael Bay takes the reins of Captain Phillips, showing the Navy’s maneuvers to free Phillips in all their honorable might. With Henry Jackman’s overbearing score indulging their high-wire helicopter stunts, the action eventually dilutes itself through no fault of Barry Ackroyd’s free-handed and piercingly icy cinematography or Christopher Rouse’s propulsive editing. It’s not until the film’s inevitable climax that this seemingly disingenuous shift to gung-ho action heroism becomes yet another incisive critique of violence abused. The film’s resolution is somewhat chilling in its frank lack of humanity, which may even recontextualize the film’s occasional lapses and dilutions.
Unfortunately screenwriter Billy Ray taps into the film’s emotionally swelling heart at precisely the wrong moment, all the jarring slaughter being hush-hushed by a sentimental ending cue. All is well, except it’s clearly not. If the film reveals anything it’s how negligent to this day we are of the crude conditions of other countries. By the end the disparity between standards of living is ignored. Not only is nothing solved, but nobody quite sees the need, at least in the framework of the script. Greengrass, cast and crew all strive to inflect some worldly honesty into this often harrowing representation of the story, but some neglects of the script stage just bleed too noticeably through the film’s pores.
Bottom Line: A lean, vigorous real world procedural, Captain Phillips delivers the pressurized intensity, but not the urgency of its real world message.