Captain Phillips: Rough Waters Ahead

October 11, 2013

Though it barely made a ripple when it was released in theaters earlier this year, the Danish-made A Hijacking remains one of 2013's best movies, a white-knuckle depiction of modern-day piracy that plays out largely at the negotiating table rather than on the seized ship. It's no big surprise that the American-made pirate picture Captain Phillips reverses that order, emphasizing the on-board action rather than the behind-the-scenes negotiation. What is a real surprise, though, is that Phillips turns out to be almost every bit as good as A Hijacking despite playing out in a different key. If you see Captain Phillips in theaters -- and I highly advise that you do -- make sure to track down A Hijacking immediately afterwards (provided your nerves can stand it) since the two movies inadvertently complement each other quite well.

Captain Phillips marks Paul Greengrass's return to the director's chair three years after the disappointing Green Zone and he wastes little time getting back to what he does best: dramatizing a real-life incident with Swiss-timing precision and maximum tension. Both the director's 2002 breakout picture Bloody Sunday (about the 1972 Bogside Massacre in Northern Ireland) and the controversial 2005's United 93 (a recreation of the doomed plane that was part of the 9/11 attacks) have become the standard bearers for this kind of docudrama and Captain Phillips is very much in that tradition while also adding in the Bourne-influenced X-factor of a major Hollywood movie star in the title role.

That would be Tom Hanks, of course, who grows a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard and adopts a strong Massachusetts bray (which initially is pitched at Saturday Night Live levels of drawl, before quieting down) to play Richard Phillips. Phillips was the captain of the U.S. cargo ship the Maersk Alabama, which in 2009 was seized by Somali pirates while navigating the shipping lanes surrounding Africa, bound for Mombasa, Kenya. (Left unaddressed in the movie is the contention on behalf of several members of Phillips's crew -- who have gone so far as to file a lawsuit -- that their captain basically invited the pirates aboard by ignoring official warnings about the increased likelihood of an attack and continuing on through dangerous waters in order to save time and money. The cinematic Phillips does come across as something of a company man, but also appears extra-attentive to advanced maritime warnings and, if anything, his crew seems slower to take any threats seriously).

After a brief preamble that contextualizes Phillips's home life (his wife is played by Catherine Keener, and the couple has two grown kids) and his life on the ship, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray get down to business. They recount, in almost minute-by-minute detail, how the Alabama was approached and eventually boarded by a four-man team of armed marauders. The leader of the unit is the bedraggled, but stoic Muse (Barkhad Abdi), whose need to lead a successful raid lest he earn the disapproval of his bosses back on shore makes him a desperate, and thus more dangerous, foe. Per company regulations, the crew of the Alabama are unarmed and seek refuge in the engine room while Phillips stays on deck to distract the pirates and hopefully get them off the ship without a prolonged hostage situation (like the one depicted in A Hijacking) developing. What follows is somewhat akin to a real-world version of Die Hard, where Phillips and the crew use misdirection and whatever tools happen to be at hand (but never fists or guns a la John McClane) to win back their freedom. And like Die Hard (the first one, anyway) Captain Phillips stages this battle with an unerring eye for the geography of the setting and the timing of the attacks. Unlike Die Hard, this is never just a mere cat-and-mouse game for either the hero or the villains. The stakes on both sides are too high and the threat of death too real for Phillips to toss off a "Yippee ki yay, motherfucker," or for Muse to sneer like the slimy Hans Gruber.

The first half of Captain Phillips is superbly sustained set-piece, but, just as in real life, the narrative does have to leave the boat eventually, with Phillips successfully convincing the pirates to escape in the ship's life boat with $30,000 in their pockets only to become their hostage in that confined space. That vessel is the setting for the second hour of the movie and Greengrass -- a director who generally thrives on kinetic motion (even in United 93, the terrorists and their terrified passengers had more room to move about than the characters do here) -- is somewhat stymied by the static nature of that environment. It's here that Ray's script takes over, as Phillips tries and, in a nice twist on the usual hostage scenarios seen in movies, repeatedly fails to make a personal connection with Muse or any of his colleagues.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military gets in on the action by order of the President, freeing Greengrass up to cross-cut between the lifeboat and the command vessel, as well as the SEAL team that eventually arrives on the scene. Truth be told, this section of the movie is a little too repetitious (Phillips keeps almost making a breakthrough, only to be knocked back to square one) and chaotic compared to the high-wire tension of the Alabama hijacking. But it all pays off in a truly powerful closing scene that features some of the best screen acting Hanks has ever done. It's also a more personal finale than what we get at the end of A Hijacking, which again speaks to why these two movies dovetail together so nicely. That film is about the toll piracy exacts on the hearts and minds of those on board as well as back in the boardroom; this one is ultimately about the toll it takes on one man's body and soul.

By Ethan Alter

Source : TVWithoutPity