While Jack Sparrow may be the first thing that comes to movie goers minds when it comes to pirates, real life piracy doesn’t include krakens, eyeliner or the undead. Over the years, piracy has been defined by poor Somalians, who take to the seas to kidnap and ransom ships from the First World for their warlord bosses. One famous but ultimately doomed example came in April 2009, and has now been recreated on film – and as Captain Phillips further proves, the top re-enactor of tense historical drama is still director Paul Greengrass.
Captain Richard Phillips led a cargo freighter out into dangerous seas on April 2009. It was supposed to be a routine expedition, even as Somalian pirates arrived to threaten the boat. Yet when they actually found a way onboard, the situation escalated until the captors finally had to leave on the freighter’s lifeboat – taking the captain along with them. This left Captain Phillips trapped for days in close quarters with the increasingly desperate pirates, as the Navy worked to intercept them before they returned to Somalia.
Greengrass has become a pioneer of two kinds of action movies – the fictional ones like the last two Matt Damon Bourne movies, and the historical action docu-drama. Bloody Sunday gave him his start, then he truly hit a nerve in recreating the 9/11 hijackings with United 93. Captain Phillips lets Greengrass follow his United 93 formula to the letter – if perhaps a bit too closely at times – although the setting and approach is different. Yet by the end, the deep impact of it all is the same, or at least as close as possible.
Greengrass is allowed to have more high octane action than United 93, and actually has a big movie star in Tom Hanks to anchor things. But while Captain Phillips sticks closer to a traditional Hollywood action thriller/true story, the depiction is pure Greengrass. His trademark shaky camerawork is on display, yet he doesn’t induce as much vertigo as usual – perhaps because he is limited to shooting on boats.
Visually speaking, Greengrass does some truly sweeping work on the open ocean that puts the Pirates of the Caribbean films to shame, without needing CGI. Yet he rachets the tension even further when Captain Phillips and his captors take refuge in the lifeboat, in sequences that are not for the claustrophobic. Nevertheless, Greengrass shows that the biggest suspense can come from a simple cat-and-mouse battle between equally matched opponents, like Captain Phillips and pirate captain Muse.
Lesser – and less truthful – movies and directors might have turned Captain Phillips into a generic “American white man gets the better of evil minorities” saga. But there’s no room for rah-rah heroics, even with the Navy and Seal Team Six on the case at the end. Instead, Greengrass doesn’t let us forget that these pirates are more desperate than psychotic, as they struggle to withstand the growing pressure while Muse keeps telling the captain – and himself – that everything will be okay in a more and more tragic fashion.
The feeling of tragic inevitability hovers over Captain Phillips, from the freighter having no choice but to follow the same dangerous route, to the pirates having no choice but to follow their course to the end. This is meant to aid larger themes about global capitalism, piracy in the Third World and how Captain Phillips and Muse are small pieces in a larger, changing system. While Greengrass and writer Billy Ray hit their mark in those moments, they soon take a back seat to the escalating tension, which makes the movie feel like a missed opportunity in some places.
However, the political message of Captain Phillips becomes less important than the emotional one. Like with United 93, Greengrass doesn’t blink in showing the high survival instincts of regular people in harrowing times – whether they are hostages or hijackers. As the men in the lifeboat all reach their breaking point in trying to stay alive, it gives the action an even greater impact – and makes an audience forget that they already know how it all turns out. But just as United 93 does, Captain Phillips makes the inevitable end breathless and unrelenting, even though this one turns out just a little better.
Greengrass also breaks from his formula by having Hanks as his movie star of choice, instead of Matt Damon. After getting mired in the Da Vinci Code movies and the likes of Larry Crowne and Cloud Atlas in recent years, it’s been a while since Hanks has really shown why he was once the biggest star in the world. While reviews have harped that Hanks is back in “Everyman” territory, he hasn’t had an everyman pushed to the brink like this since Cast Away – and there’s no extreme weight loss, beard or volleyball to aid him.
Like in Cast Away, Hanks is a raw open book as he lays every emotion bare on his face. While Captain Phillips is often a passive hostage, Hanks lets us see the wheels turning in his mind throughout, as he tries to gain any advantage over his captors and defuse things as best he can. But he can no longer compose himself at the end, in an outpouring of emotion that even Hanks hasn’t displayed before – although his lauded final sequence is less startling for his tears and voice than for how utterly hollowed out he makes himself become. In fact, it’s all the more brilliant for looking almost underplayed, much like Hanks in the rest of the film.
While this sort of high standard is typical for Hanks – or was years ago – Captain Phillips puts him against an unknown who hits that mark in his first time up. Rookie actor Barkhad Abdi goes toe to toe with Hanks without missing a beat, forging a battle of wills as fraught with tension as any big action scene. Although Abdi is less expressive than Hanks by design, his dead eyed stare and menace takes on more dimension over time, as he scrambles to prove to his crew, the U.S. and himself that he can pull this off.
Captain Phillips is a quintessential Greengrass movie, as no one recreates true life action quite like him, imitators be damned. This does mean that he isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone, even if Hanks is. But despite how Greengrass has done this sort of thing slightly better before, this is still a showcase that reinforces his vast power – with Hanks’s own showcase giving it even greater meaning.
By the end, Captain Phillips hits the kind of nerve wracking, hard to breathe through climax that’s rarely been seen since United 93 seven years ago. Outside of the masterminds of Breaking Bad, few other than Greengrass can make that happen in movies, let alone pull it off twice – though I haven’t seen Alfonso Cuaron and Steve McQueen try yet in Gravity and 12 Years A Slave. Nevertheless, in this particular action subgenre, Greengrass still stands alone.