Captain Phillips throws you into the heart of the social and personal atmosphere of modern day piracy, while effectively toeing the line between the innocent, the misunderstood, and the powerful force of the modern military. Paul Greengrass directs a film that never takes a side, but rather critiques all of the forces at play, while delivering an amazingly well paced, shot, and acted film.
Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, a complex and somewhat controversial character not only in the narrative of this film, but also in real life. It was not too long ago that the crew of the MV Maersk Alabama spoke out against the captain, stating that he was a coward, and not the hero, as depicted in the film. However, I would argue that while the film tried to focus the conflict a bit by fudging some details, Phillips is not portrayed as much of a hero. Instead, he is almost an innocent bystander with leadership issues but an ability to keep his cool. He has a single heroic moment when one of his crew members is being directly threatened, but not much more. He complies with the pirates, subtly trying to stall their search for the rest of the crew, but he does nothing a typical hollywood “hero” would do. Instead, we see a concerned man, frightened on the inside, but calm on the outside. We see a man who simply wants to get back to his family. Hanks’ portrayal of this complexity, leadership issues and all, is stellar, and only gets better as the film goes on, ramping up to one of the best closing 10 minutes in recent memory. And Hanks is not alone in his accomplishment. The pirate crew, all non-actors, skillfully portray men in a complex and unfortunate set of circumstances. Their point of view makes this film special. As the film goes on, one really starts to sympathize with their position, and one cannot help but blame the political and societal environment that they’re coming from, rather than the individuals themselves. The leader of the Pirates, Muse, is played by Barkhad Abdi, and is a sort of innocent-antagonist. Abdi excels in his role, perfectly portraying someone who feels societal pressure to prove himself. He is not reluctant, but is rather over-motivated and overconfident, and who overplays his hand because of this. When the situation escalates, there is an almost electric sense that these pirates, Muse especially, are overwhelmed by the sense of their original duty, picking up the scraps of what they’ve accomplished so far, but eventually falls into frustration. They are met with a power that is far beyond their control.
Thematically, the film portrays this power in neither a positive or negative light. Some may think that the film is a little too pro-American due to the arrival of the US Navy in the narrative. However, I do not think this is the case. They symbolize a force that is far beyond that of the crew, the captain, or the pirates. It is almost an oppressive, manipulative force that is consumed with the idea of getting the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is not pro-American, but rather criticizes the extent of our military. After introducing us to the pirates’ point of view, the military looms on the horizon like a god, a god that is not benevolent. But like the pirates and their societal influences, the film does not criticize the individuals who are in the military, but rather the higher forces that drive it, the ones that see the military not as a collection of individuals, but rather a massive machine, inhuman, consumed with spreading the doctrine of duty throughout its ranks. The contrast between the US military machine and the Somalian societal machine is stark. They both operate in similar ways, but the main difference is that of the first vs the third world. The speed and efficiency that the military is able to act and manipulate the situation is almost scary because of how the film has placed us into the minds of the pirates. The conflict ultimately comes down to who has the bigger guns. The Somalian pirates, with their AK-47’s, easily have the upper hand against the crew of the MV Maersk Alabama. They have the power, because they have the guns. However, the tide is turned when the military arrives. They have the power, because they have the bigger guns. It’s an interesting commentary on conflict and how the bravado of the larger force can be seen as antagonistic to the smaller force, even if the larger force has no intention of doing harm. This contrast really puts America’s place in the world into perspective. The film is really trying to twist our viewpoint to realize just how scary the US military can be to these third world countries, and how the paranoia that a lot of them have towards us, towards America, is quite justified. Their paranoia comes down to not that we will harm to these countries, but the fact that we can harm these countries if we desire. And they simply don’t know what we truly desire: to help, or to harm.
Captain Phillips is a remarkably well paced film. The script is very well written and executed, especially in the latter half of the film when Phillips and the pirates are in a cramped lifeboat. Clocking in at 2 hours and 14 minutes, the film grabs ahold of our attention from the very beginning and does not let go until the credits roll. Unlike the shorter and much weaker paced thriller Gravity, Captain Phillips does a good job with dragging the right moments out. It builds and holds tension in such a way that really shows maturity. And once we move to the lifeboat, it is remarkable that the film does not fall apart due to the cramped, limiting environment. Instead, this is when the film really starts to shine thanks to the remarkable camerawork and blocking.
Speaking of the camera, we never get the sense that the camera is an omnipotent viewpoint. The camera is grounded, gritty, and feels very real. Other than some less than convincing day-for-night shots, the cinematography feels documentarian, and rightly so. The crew shot most of the film practically, on the water, on the decks of a real Maersk Line ship and Navy battleships. In the thick of things, under the foam splashing across the deck of a dingy, sat Barry Ackroyd, the film’s cinematographer, clenching nothing more than a Super16mm camera. This is a typical strategy for Greengrass and Ackroyd. Throw the camera in the middle of the action and shoot practically. Both have experience shooting documentaries, and this has an obvious influence on how they shoot their narrative films as well. Besides the aerial photography, which was shot on an Arri Alexa, and a couple shots of navy seals, which were shot on a GoPro, the film was photographed on film. More specifically, Fuji film, in both 35mm and Super16 varieties. The Super16 footage was used for the Somalian pirate’s point of view, while the 35mm was used for everything else. This visual contrast, from grainy and soft to razor sharp and beautiful, brings the political commentary into focus, while the grain, the imperfections, the highlight rendering, etc of film stock lends the film a tension between the real and the narrative. Film exists in a gorgeous middle ground of which the eye tends to categorize as neither real nor imaginary. It exists as both, which lends itself fully to the type of film and filmmaking style that is showcased in Captain Phillips.
The film is certainly not to be missed. It is intense, exciting, ponderous, and it bends perspective. There are no antagonists and no protagonists. It tells the story of a conflict between individuals, clashing not because of their own ideas, but rather powers that are greater than their own. Corporate, revolutionary, and militaristic powers that all operate with the idea that the individual has a duty to serve these powers, no matter what the cost is to the individual.
Art Direction: 8/10
“Film as Entertainment” Rating: 9/10
“Film as Art” Rating: 8/10