My colleague pointed out at the end of the press screening for Captain Phillips that director Paul Greengrass had finally made his true picture: a movie where you, with all the shaky cam, are on a rocking boat being jerked from starboard to port until forced to feel some kind of immersion. Since Captain Phillips takes place almost completely out at sea, we have two hours to give in or resist this technique.
And it feels longer. For a film as action-driven as Captain Phillips, one would expect far more bite and urgency to the proceedings. The fascinating story of Richard Phillips, Captain of the MV Maersk Alabama 240, is polarized by Greengrass’s pseudo-documentary realism and cranked-up Hollywood action movie tropes. Overwhelmed by a clamorous score and predictable moments of buildup and release, Captain Phillips doesn’t seem like an honest portrayal of the ship’s 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates, and it’s too uneven for a serious action film.
Propelled merely by Greengrass’s “fast” style, Captain Phillips generates little emotional efficiency. One could profess the film as “cold”, but Greengrass’s objectivism isn’t a thoughtful panorama, as it simply dramatizes the hijacking situation with a bombastic pro-American sensibility. Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, the other (superior) “Somali hijacking” movie from this year, emphasized the extensive measures taken in this situation. The narrative framework portrayed the conflicting forces of bureaucracy and personal feelings that influence, and delay or hinder, negotiations.
Captain Phillips fakes any truly affecting moral or political conflict, by conducting its sequences through amped-up tension and delayed resolution. Some of it entertains – a film with this much go-go-go is destined to deflect off the bullseye of drama occasionally – but ultimately the story feels padded with an unmotivated opening set-up that tries to humanize the Somali pirates and personalize Captain Phillips with a scene with his wife (Catherine Keener), all the way to an overlong climax in a free fall lifeboat.
Don’t get me wrong: Captain Phillips isn’t at all awful. It features an insanely stellar performance by Tom Hanks, who embodies Phillips with a convincing balance of trepidation and resilience. Hanks knows how to use his eyes to express heroic nerve, and at the same time a deeply repressed vulnerability. He owns the film’s final scene, which has an emotional impact the film, up until then, didn’t appear to have the capacity for.
But Hanks’ deft performance can’t save Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray’s facile characterizations of the Somali pirates. The leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), toys with Phillips and tries to vanquish his authority as captain of the ship. Muse is a fear-mongering brute, a villain at his core (A Hijacking bravely avoided exaggerated antagonisms). When Phillips confesses that the Alabama 240 is “an American ship”, we see the greed flare in Muse’s eyes. In a later, less opportune scene for Muse, he cravenly yelps “I love America!”. This hypocrisy is a character notion Greengrass never really explores in his antagonists, only discards in their dialogue.
Captain Phillips could function as a decent action movie if it had a firmer, more immersive sense of time and place. Despite Greengrass’s shaky-cam style, there is no real immediacy. The film stays remote, drumming along at standard, action-movie pacing. Greengrass’s derivative genre-making defeats any fluid sense of danger and reality. Only the finale previously mentioned hits home, but the overall point is primarily the “rah-rah-rah” catharsis under the guise of Greengrass’s (over-appreciated) “seriousness”.
There are moments to enjoy in Captain Phillips. But for another Hollywood film based on actual national events, convention and predictability won’t do it. Last year’s Oscar films Argo and Zero Dark Thirty had similar problems – the latter mainly overdosed on vagueness, trying to be so wise and relevant in this post-9/11 era. My advice: look for A Hijacking (its DVD release is on October 15) as a recourse to Captain Phillips. Lindholm’s film deals with a Somali pirate hijacking in such a way that comes off real and politically charged – where, finally, Greengrass comes up short.