Chances are you know the story. On April 8th, 2009, a small group of Somali pirates boarded the container ship Maersk Alabama, attempting to hijack it. When their attempts proved unsuccessful, they took Capt. Richard Phillips hostage and absconded in a lifeboat, hoping to negotiate a ransom on Somalian soil. Three days later, they found themselves in the midst of a tense standoff with Navy SEAL snipers that ended with Phillips rescued and most of the pirates dead. Not to marginalize the very real danger of these events, but whenever a story like this – of actual people having to survive extraordinary danger – makes the headlines, the question is not will they make a movie, it’s how quickly?
(The other question is who’s gonna write the book?)
The follow up question is who’s gonna make it. And if you’re gonna dramatize real-life events, you could certainly do a lot worse than Paul Greengrass. Probably most famous for his work on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, he injected new life into the franchise with shaky, frenetic camerawork and lightning fast editing. That’s fairly par for the course as action movies go these days, but what makes Greengrass different is (and this is a little difficult for me to describe), whether he has an intuitively better sense of film language or just works with better editors, his use of the technique actually creates the feeling of chaos, rather than lazily suggest it.
Chances are his skill with this style is rooted to his beginnings in journalism. Before moving into features, Greengrass cut his teeth directing documentary segments for British news show World in Action and co-authored inflammatory books about the shady goings-on in MI5. One of his first features to gain international attention, the docudrama Bloody Sunday, recreated the events of the eponymous 1972 Irish massacre, combining his skills as an investigative journalist with a burning desire for social justice that can be detected, overtly or covertly, throughout his filmography. In United 93, which dramatized the opening hours of the 9/11 attacks, Greengrass sought to preserve the authenticity of the events by casting many of officials recognized the attacks and handled the resultant chaos as themselves.
(On a completely unrelated note, Greengrass once stated his preference for Jason Bourne to James Bond by describing Bond as “an Imperialist right-wing fuckface.” I thought that was interesting.)
Captain Phillips is an excellent platform for Greengrass’ sensibilities, and he executes them with as much skill and gusto as you’d expect. Working from Phillips’ own memoirs of the experience (A Captain’s Duty) and shot largely at sea, the film follows the captain, portrayed by Tom Hanks, from his home in New England to the shipping freighter in Oman to the attempted highjacking to his kidnapping and finally to his inevitable rescue. The film’s opening is an oddity. Part of that is the presence of Catherine Keener, who plays Phillips’ wife, Andrea. This is shocking not only because she is one of the few women in the movie but also the only other ‘name’ actor in the film. Who never appears again. (She isn’t even listed in the end crawl.) The other surprise is how badly written this scene is. As Phillips and his wife drive to the airport, they worry how their grown and growing children will do in the job market and lament how much things have changed. Not that I expected this scene to rewrite the rules of screenwriting, but they don’t exchange sentences so much as platitudes, and it feels like the kind of pandering scene that Greengrass’ style seems to shy away from.
But then we are introduced to our pirates. While the film briskly sets up the desperate circumstances in which people must turn to piracy for a living, it also takes the opportunity to introduce us to a kind of criminal version of the A-Team: there’s Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the brains, Najee (Faysal Ahmed), the brawn, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), the young one, and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), the driver. Though all four are excellent, Abdi and Ahmed get the lion’s share of things to do. Abdi brings a kind of repulsive charisma to the role of Muse, and Ahmed’s Najee, a character who clearly enjoys hurting people in the first place, spends so much of the movie on edge it looks like his eyeballs are going to explode out of his skull at any moment.
(“Motherfucker, did you just BLINK AT ME?!!??!”)
When we arrive at the Maersk Alabama, the movie steadily picks up steam. There’s nothing I can say about how Greengrass handles the action on the ship that hasn’t already been described, other than the assault, and the subsequent cat-and-mouse game between the crew and the captors, feels like it happens in excruciatingly real time. The same can be said about the time spent on the lifeboat, and this is also where Greengrass’ social realist tendencies begin to peek through. Of particular note are scenes where Muse explains that his lifelong dream is to go to America and buy a car. He later brags about having hijacked a ship the previous year and gotten six million dollars for it, only for Phillips to ask, “Then what’re you still doing this for?” In another exchange, Phillips says that surely there are other options than kidnapping people for a living. Muse solemnly replies, “Maybe in America.”
I still haven’t written about the actor who plays Captain Phillips himself, and that may be because, for most of the movie, there’s not that much to write. That’s not meant as a slight against Hanks’ performance, mind. But Hanks reigns in his everyman charm so much that his Phillips becomes a literal embodiment of the word ‘stoicism’. This is apparently right on the money for how the real captain conducts himself on the job. Phillips is such a hard-nose that his interactions with his coworkers often amount to, “You done with that coffee break yet?” Though it makes his character difficult to warm to, it quickly becomes apparent that this attitude is reason he’s able to corral his crew and hold his own against the pirates, that New England accent never wavering. (Admittedly, I thought Hanks was hamming it up a bit on the accent part, but that was before I heard the real Phillips, whose accent is, if anything, even thicker.)
It’s not often that I cry in movies these days. Sometimes I am moved, but not usually to tears. Maybe I watch too goddamn many of them. I didn’t expect Captain Phillips to be a movie that would make me cry. And for the better part of its two hours and 15 minutes, it isn’t. A tense, authentic document of a terrifying ordeal, sure. But the pace is so fast and Hanks so stoic that it’s not the most easily ‘relatable’ movie I’ve seen. But then Phillips is rescued. And then he’s taken to the sick bay. And in those moments you remember that there’s a reason Tom Hanks has won two Oscars.