By: Daniel Reynolds
How do you make a thrilling film about a newsworthy subject where the outcome is already assured? What if that film is from the very recent past, when a retrospective glance is not as easily aided by 20/20 hindsight? Making movies based on history is not difficult; we see it all the time, every time those “based on a true…” words come up. The film Captain Phillips is sold to us as an action thriller, but one based on a true story. There are those words again. Now, can this film be solely remarkable because it manages to create uncertainty where there is already fact? Or is it impressive because of its treatment of those true events, its understanding of the world’s growing moral complexity with far less room for nostalgia or anything rose-coloured? Or is it both? Can it be both? Thoughtful and thrilling, real and in doubt.
We’ll start with the certainties: Tom Hanks is real. He can play serious, very serious. But, of course, there is also his legacy of comedy and light-hearted roles that endear him to the general public. Movie stars of his type have an enviable task at a certain point when their performances can be described by turning their names into adjectives (Bullock was at her Bullock-iest in Gravity, for example). Despite his obvious skill, Hanks has to push a little harder to move beyond being seen as everybody’s favourite movie star. And as of late, with a string of crowd pleasers and lighter fare, Hanks hasn’t been pushed since around 2002-04 (Road to Perdition, Catch Me If You Can and, yes, I have a soft spot for the Terminal). In Captain Phillips, Hanks arrives with his salt-and-pepper goatee, looking a little leaner, with a sprinkling in of a northwestern American accent, We immediately get the sense of dedicated family man and, to be honest, a bit of a hardass sailor. Hanks plays it smart and subtle. He is an action hero in a day when PEDs, and Rambo, and black-and-white moral heroism seem ridiculous or quaint. No matter how unsafe Captain Phillips the film begins to feel, Hanks is there as the anchor keeping the whole rocky enterprise within sight.
I tip toe up to using the adjective rocky because Captain Phillips is a film directed by Paul Greengrass. As a director, Greengrass is known mainly for two things: his adherence to a hand held, in-your-face camera style (I’ll resist from calling it ‘shakey cam’) and, when not making Bourne films, a striving desire for verisimilitude. While the poster for Captain Phillips reminds us of Greengrass’s Bourne connection, the closer analogy is to Greengrass’s 2006 film United 93, a similar movie tied to unthinkable moments from recent history. As with United 93, Greengrass is unafraid of setting his narrative course by establishing the daily realities of both its heroes and its villains. Scenes of the work-a-day mundane life of modern sailors are juxtaposed with the hard scrabble life of the Somalis by the sea. Greengrass shows the men busting chops over coffee, the Captain checking his email, while the pirates band together and sketch out their risky hijacking plan. We are told, with Greengrass’ usual cinema verite approach, that this is the way of the various lives at sea. The entire film seems constructed, sometimes achingly so, to enforce this approach.
Wisely, Greengrass surrounds Hanks with actors who do not call attention to themselves. I had to look half of them up afterwards to remember where I’d seen them before (Max Martini in Pacific Rim, Michael Chernus from Orange is the New Black). These are not even “Hey, it’s That Guy!” type of actors; Greengrass keeps the focus, laser-like, on the growing struggle between Phillips and the Somali pirates. Unlike other recent (and soon to come) ‘lost at sea’ films, the threats are not nature, there are men with guns. This is where Greengrass’s technique is most effective, his camera always inches from a face, a clenched fist, a loaded assault rifle. The action of the film always feels sudden, dangerous and immediate. We have to remind ourselves that we already know the outcome. Then there are the pirates themselves, stalking the ship as wisps; we barely learn their names. There is the young one, Bilal, the follower, Elmi, the obvious wild one, Najee and, the leader Muse. As first time non-actors, these young men shine in their roles, injecting uneasy and confused menace into the movie. The largest impression is made by Muse played by Barkhad Abdi, appearing gaunt, dead eyed and referred to as ‘Skinny’ (which feels particularly mean; there are not a lot of big Somalis on hand). There is a craftiness behind his eyes, a hunger that goes beyond his next meal. It takes a strong film, and filmmaker, to acknowledge that the villain is the protagonist of his own story. We cannot excuse Muse – he is ready to kill – yet nevertheless he feels tragic. Greengrass will not let us get in any nostalgic what ifs, but where would Muse have been if he lived anywhere else?
For all the intensity of the film’s set pieces, Greengrass touches on the politics with a light finger. Muse references old heists, he ruminates on the big western ships that have trawled the nearby ocean dry of fish, making piracy feel like the only option. As with the best films of this type, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray only show. There is an organization, a warlord that dictates to these ravenous young men. Choice is not a reality. There is an understanding that the film need not preach the unfortunate ways of the world. We feel a certain sympathy, or perhaps a certain empathy. Phillips may be literally trapped, but the film implies a more tragic bondage for the wild eyed pirates. These are young men who have seized millions of dollars but still wake up in ugly concrete block bunkers on a beach in Africa. The politics, though, are secondary; they are background. It comes back to Hanks as Phillips and Muse and the hopelessness that grows as the size of their shared boat shrinks. The second half of the film, with the Navy closing in and, at times, the appearance of enough military hardware to erase the coastal village our Somali pirates come from, becomes an unrelenting exercise. I could have used maybe 15 fewer minutes, maybe one less negotiation or false start. Captain Phillips, the film, may be pushing for truth but it need not be shackled by its need to document all of the minutia.
But oh, what terrifying minutia. Greengrass keeps the camera right in the thick of it, the smell of the sweat and gunpowder and khat, and the desperation, always the desperation hanging thickly in the air. We know Captain Phillips lives – he wrote the book this movie was based on – but off they all go, in that orange coffin of a lifeboat and you just do not know. Will the clipped proficiency of the Navy SEALs win? Will Phillips outsmart his captors? We keep telling ourselves that we know, but the film tests us, and then again we’re not sure. Like everything else in the film, when the ending comes, even in retrospect, the shock and relief feel real.