“Captain Phillips” – Final: US Navy 1, Somali Pirates 0

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013)

It’s a lonely place to be if you didn’t find Paul Greengrass’s latest film a masterpiece. If that’s the review you want, I suggest you read this piece by the wonderful Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post. I, however, have feelings more in line with this far more critical look at the film from Andrew O’Hehir of Salon. With a 94% critics rating and an 88% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes (as of this writing), the film looks like a hit. So what’s wrong with me?

Well, first off, let me just say that there is much to like in this movie. Greengrass, who gave us Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy, United 93The Bourne Ultimatum, and Green Zone, not to mention many television documentaries beforehand, knows his way around an action sequence, and usually manages to tell his stories in a manner both dispassionate and engaging. That may seem like a contradiction, but what I admire in Greengrass is the way in which he focuses primarily on story, rather than on message, allowing the audience to interact with the characters on their own terms (within limits, since all filmmaking is about manipulation) in a (seemingly) objective narrative.

The problem in this latest movie is that the visual weight of military power, by the end – intentionally or not – overcomes Greengrass’s better tendencies, allowing a distasteful and wholly unnecessary bit of triumphalist jingoism to creep in (which, as it did for Andrew O’Hehir, reminds me of Zero Dark Thirty). Of course I wanted Captain Phillips to be freed. Of course I wanted the pirates defeated. Films are not made in a cultural vacuum, however, and Hollywood has a long tradition of pitting the American military against brown-skinned bad guys, and my ultimate takeaway from this film is that a predominantly white U.S. military, with overwhelming force, defeated 4 impoverished and incompetent Somalis, killing 3 of them. In spite of the virtuosic display of camera and editing techniques, I emerged in 2013 wondering why white filmmakers can’t do a better job understanding how harmful their images can be. True, the script, by Billy Ray, does make a token effort to help us understand that these pirates are human beings who have their own reasons for acting as they do, but it’s not enough. US Navy 1, Somali Pirates 0. Rah, rah.

Which is too bad, because the man at the center of the story, Richard Phillips (played here by a marvelous Tom Hanks), is a true hero. A demanding boss, we first meet him as he says goodbye to his wife (in a weak and completely expositional scene with an underused Catherine Keener), then boards his container ship for a trip that will take him and his crew past the Somali coast. It’s clear right away that he is good at what he does, but not particularly beloved of his crew (all business, with no time for chit-chat). But his rigorous ways have a real payoff when 4 tenacious pirates board the ship. Thanks to Phillips’s previous insistence on training, the crew is able to keep the pirates from gaining total control. And then, as a final gesture, Phillips places himself in direct harm’s way, allowing himself – rather than any member of his crew – to be kidnapped in a lifeboat (side note: that’s a pretty awesome unsinkable lifeboat!) by the (now injured) pirates. Eventually, the U.S. navy arrives, and Phillips is rescued. Since this all occurred in 2009, I assume that you, dear reader, have some kind of memory of these events, hence do not take my quick plot summary as a plot spoiler.

Up to that point in the film (minus the opening scene), I was a complete fan. There were even some nice critical digs at both the shipping companies that refuse to allow their crews to have armed guards, and at the U.S. military for being unreachable when the pirates first arrive. In other words, this was no jingoistic exercise – yet – but a taut even-handed thriller that told a specific story about a single incident with geo-political resonance. But then the big boats and the Seals arrived, and I slowly began to lose interest.

It’s still quite an adrenaline rush, though, so if that’s your thing, you’ll have a good time. You’ll also probably enjoy – beyond Hanks – the terrific performances by the actors playing the pirates, especially Barhkad Abdi, who plays Muse, their leader (my thanks to Hollis Robbins for that link). He and his colleagues almost succeed in overcoming the “White Man’s Burden” weight upon their heads through their fine and nuanced performances.

Go see it, and I welcome your comments after you do.


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