Review: Captain Phillips

Spoilers

Trailer

Tom Hanks plays the title role in Paul Greengrass's depiction of an infamous Somali pirate hijacking of an American cargo ship in 2009.

Tom Hanks plays the title role in Paul Greengrass’s depiction of an infamous Somali pirate hijacking of an American cargo ship in 2009.

I’m a Tom Hanks fan. He’s one of those actors whose ratio of good movies to bad is ridiculously weighted in favour of good, and even his bad movies, like Joe Vs The Volcano, have their redeeming elements. Hanks is a guy who has long since made his indelible mark on Hollywood, and has been suitably rewarded for it in the form of two Oscars. Now, in the later part of his career, he has been able to focus on more niche projects that he is more personally interested in. That results in, by and large, good cinema. And the latest offering from Hanks is Captain Phillips.

Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) is in command of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama in the Spring of 2009 as it delivers humanitarian aid to Kenya. Sailing near the Horn of Africa, the Alabama is soon targeted by a small group of teenaged Somali pirates, led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), looking for a lucrative payday. When they hijack the vessel, Phillips and his crew are centre stage at the first pirate seizure of an American ship since the early 19th century, and the ensuing efforts to save them by the US military.

If there was a movie that would wash the bad taste of Oblivion out of mouth, this was it. Captain Phillips is an excellent adaptation of the Maersk Alabama story, at times deeply thrilling, at others intensely emotional.

It is a very, very personal movie, thanks largely to the way that the whole thing is visually framed (more on that in a bit) but also the way that is framed in terms of plot direction and pacing. Captain Phillips is the story, largely, of two men from opposite sides of the world, and the movie follows them intimately from start to finish, always making sure that a depiction of one is balenced with a depiction of the other. Through these two men, we get a glimpse at a shadowy conflict that is a central part of a much maligned section of the African coastline.

The first is Captain Richard Phillips, a well built, middle-aged freight captain. In his middle-class home in America he prepares his voyage, drives to the airport with his wife, and admonishes the way that things have gone in America in terms of employment and prospects. He travels to Oman to take on another run-of-the-mill captaincy job, brining humanitarian aid to another deprived part of Africa.

The second is Abduwali Muse, an impoverished, teenaged Somali pirate. In his hovel near the coastline he chews the khat drug and awaits orders to go to sea to claim another foreign boat for his masters, from which he probably gain a pittance. Quiet but ruthlessly determined, he eyes out the best volunteers for his crew, and prepares to deal fatal blows for his rivals.

Captain Phillips, despites the title, is the story of both of these men, and the contrast between the two of them. Nothing happens in Captain Phillips that is not juxtaposed around one or both of them in some way. They play off each other and, in terms of being characters, define each other. Their interactions provide director Paul Greengrass with a basis to explore the divide between the First and Third worlds.

Both men push their crews hard, though Muse does it for more basic reasons of survival. Both men try to trick and deceive the other before the boarding. Both men care about the fate of their crews, and both men seem determined to do anything to survive.

But then there are the defining differences. Nobody will pay a ransom for Muse, or care unduly if he is killed by a SEAL team sniper. Phillips is a determined man, but he has not come from the hard life that Muse has come from, and is not so used to violence as the Somali. Phillips is used to having his every word obeyed onboard his ship, while Muse, towards the end at any rate, struggles to keep control of his small band.

The movie takes a sympathetic look at the issue of Somali piracy, making sure the audience is aware of the lack of choices these young men have.

The movie takes a sympathetic look at the issue of Somali piracy, making sure the audience is aware of the lack of choices these young men have.

These similarities and differences make up the core of Captain Phillips, and the interactions between the two characters. Phillips is all about saving his crew and to a lesser extent his ship. Later, he wants to save his own life,. And maybe the lives of his captors as well. Muse wants a payday, a more basic goal. The course of Captain Phillips is about how these goals change and adapt, and ultimately how Phillips tries to use Muse’s desires against him and his crew.

Phillips is no typical American hero. If he was, he’d have gunned down the pirates himself in the finale and would never have sat still in the lifeboat for so long. What he is, is an ordinary guy, a true ordinary guy, not just a cardboard cut out. He is a hero who doesn’t want to be a hero, a leader who wishes that he was still steaming towards Mombasa with his humanitarian supplies rather than dealing with a pirate attack. That makes him believable and, much more importantly, makes him likable.

And Muse is no typical American movie villain. He isn’t doing this for true monetary gain, just the pittance that his warlords deign to give him, otherwise the million dollar ransoms he enacted in previous hijackings would not have to be replicated on a regular basis. He doesn’t hurt for pleasure or out of a sense of evilness, but by sheer necessity. He needs a new engine, so he takes one by force, he needs to make Phillips subservient, so he hits him. He doesn’t want to be in this situation anymore than Phillips but his hands are tied, and his sadness at seeing no way out is evocative and true. He’s more believable too and, in a more perverse way, somewhat likable and sympathetic.

This is a visual presentation of a great clash of civilisations. The contrast between Phillips’ suburban home and Muse’s peasant village could not be more striking (and deliberately so). So too for the place where Phillips takes to the sea in comparison to the bare shoreline that serves as Muse’s dock. Muse complains about the western boats that come to their seas and drain them of fish, the kind of activity that Phillips and his Alabama represent indirectly. Phillips has little response for him, a private acknowledgement that the west has more than its fair share of responsibility for the Somali situation and its piracy extension.

The two come from alien worlds to each other, with Muse seeing America as the great mythic land of opportunity, and Phillips fearing the apparent barbarity of Somalia. Both are wrong about the other, and by the end of Captain Phillips they’ve come to realise that to a limited extent. Phillips realises that he’s just dealing with a bunch of frightened kids who have no way out of their present circumstances, while Muse gets to go the land of freedom – in chains.

This depiction of the clash of civilisations, between west and east, American and African, is one that is rarely done well on screen in my opinion, but Captain Phillips manages it, by reducing the focus to just these two men. Simply showing the Somali side of things so prominently is important, an absence of which so ruined the adaptation of Black Hawk Down, the only other major work that focused on the interaction between American and Somali.

The conclusion of Captain Phillips does enough to make you feel a large degree of sympathy for Muse and his crew, caught between their murderous masters in Somalia and the might of the US military, a lose-lose situation no matter how you look at it. Moreover, it does that without painting Phillips, his crew and his company is some evil light, and manages to find that emotional mid-point where we can feel despair at the final fate of the Somali’s and yet relief at the successful rescue of Phillips.

This is a slow and steady production, one where Greengrass takes all the time necessary to build up to the critical moment of decision without waiting too long, and creating something that could easily be very dull. Phillips and Muse are set up simply and patiently in their opening scenes, with a very large amount of “show, don’t tell” employed in their basic mannerisms, homes, family and outlook on life.

From there it’s a case of slowly rising tension until it hits an epic boiling point. Phillips worries about lax standards in his crew, who appear surly and occasionally lazy, too used to the easier trips across the nearby seas. Muse picks a crew, opting for some wildcard choices, and then has to prepare for a showdown with a rival pirate leader. Phillips receives e-mails about a rise of piracy in the area and worries about how he and his crew would react in the situation. A man of few words, he says nothing to his wife about it. Muse gets his orders and takes off in pursuit of a large prize, but his rival is there with him, neck and neck – there isn’t room in this job for the two of them, and that could be the difference between a payday and starvation.

Greengrass slowly brings the tension to a boil in the film's first 45 or so minutes, culminating in the successful boarding of the Alabama.

Greengrass slowly brings the tension to a boil in the film’s first 45 or so minutes, culminating in the successful boarding of the Alabama.

The first attack comes, and for a sequence where so little actually happens, Greengrass manages to crank the tension up several notches. The Alabama steams ahead of its pursuers as best it can, Phillips trying to employ some subterfuge to ward them off. It appears to only half-work, and we get a glimpse of how truly determined Muse is, willing to risk the appearance of US gunship in pursuit of his prize.

And just when it seems like we’re heading into the premise proper, a sudden gut check as Muse’s engine dies and the Alabama lives to fight another day. It was an unexpected turn, one that laid out the realistic likelihood of mechanical failure in these oceans, but managed to retain the tension through the brutal reality that the Alabama was a hairs breath from disaster. On both boats then there is nervousness, as the Alabama crew discuss how they weren’t sent out there to fight pirates, and Muse’s group sort out their own internal fractures.

That disaster comes again fast. In an excellent scene, Phillips doesn’t even have to be told what’s going on when he is called to the bridge without explanation , he just has to ask “Where are they?” This time, nothing is going to stop Muse, who has shown his ferocity by clinically disposing of his rival with a bash to the head in a preceding scene.

The Alabama makes waves, fires off its protective water cannons, Phillips fires flares, all to no avail. The pirates desperately try and latch a ladder on to the Alabama, and this is one of the moments of highest tension, the instance when it is not a sure thing that the pirates will even get on board.

They do of course, and from there the movie is a hijacker scenario – still filled with tension, but of a different sort, a suspenseful kind as opposed to the openly heart thumping aspect of the first 40 or so minutes. But that intense, rising tide of excitement was pulled off extraordinarily well by Greengrass and the cast, through such simple storytelling and visual techniques.

Remember that this is a movie based on a “true story”, and one that is fresh in the minds of those who paid attentions to the seas off Somalia only a few years ago. Much like Argo, which managed to imbue a well-known story with the highest amount of tension, Captain Phillips has taken something  very well known and managed to still make it exciting to the audience, to still keep them on the edge of their seats. That’s high praise from me, because I adored Argo, and Captain Phillips is another fine effort in the same vein. Of course, Greengrass has plenty of experience with this, being the man behind the cameras for the slightly less commendable but still effective United 93.

The actual hijacking sections, on the Alabama, are different but no less good. You’ve got a panicking, babbling Phillips on the bridge trying to talk his captors down, while doing everything that he can to keep his crew hidden and safe. You’ve got Muse, trying to be as reasonable and calculating as he can be so that he carries out the job successfully, who is at pains to make sure the Americans realise that there is “no Al Qaeda here, just business”. From this point Captain Phillips is the battle of wills and clash of civilisations that I mentioned previously, as both men try to outsmart and outthink the other, but for the audience perhaps that contest is already decided. The way the pirates celebrate upon learning they have captured an American vessel is full of foreboding. There’s a reason it was the first time in 200 years.

Phillips gets the better of this exchange of course, managing to get secret messages to his crew and thereby severely wounding one of the pirates and getting another one, Muse, captured, but they are still fraught with a quiet and utterly gripping tension as the pirates roam about the ship looking for their quarry.

From there it’s on to the lifeboat and the more militaristic side of things. This last act is about more rising tension, done just as well as the opening act, as the pirates and Phillips sail slowly towards Somalia but then find themselves drawing the attention of “half the US Navy”.

The few wide shots are typically used to illustrate the size and associated power of the numerous ships involved in the production, such as the USS Bainbridge.

The few wide shots are typically used to illustrate the size and associated power of the numerous ships involved in the production, such as the USS Bainbridge.

The narrative splits off from the previous conflict between the two captains to now spend a little time on the military side of things, maybe the only time when the plot of Captain Phillips falls down just a tad. None of the military characters, such as the Bainbridge captain or the unnamed SEAL Team leader are proper characters in the way that Phillips and Muse are. The unrelenting focus on those two men mean that the others are fairly cookie-cutter, and one wonders if Captain Phillips might not have been a more fulfilling experience if just a little bit more time was spent on the US Navy captain in the pirate infested seas, or the SEAL Team leader, a blank canvas if ever there was one, and the intense pressure that he is put under to try and get Phillips out of the lifeboat intact.

That only partially brings down the experience of the last act though, as the desperation of the pirates grows and grows, and Muse comes to realise that he probably has no way out but prison – or death. Muse has now sort of become the main character in a way, with Phillips simply riding out the remainder of the movie with much less impression being made. You care about whether Phillips lives or dies of course, and what he can do to remedy his situation. But Muse is the one calling the shots, and most of the impressive drama in the last hour comes from wondering how the pirate leader is eventually going to go, whether he will put his hands up and surrender and go down fighting.

This is probably the best acted section (below) of the entire movie, and it was a truly enrapturing experience to watch, as the seconds counted to an inevitable moment of execution, with no sense (within the context of watching the movie) of whether Phillips would actually get out of the boat or not.

He does of course, as we all (or most of us) well know, but Captain Phillips is presented so brilliantly that you are kept guessing in a strange way all the way up to the end. An active catharsis is achieved for the audience just as there is for Phillips when he comes to realise that he has not only survived the pirates but survived the shots that killed them, a passionately emotional ending as we follow Phillips through the initial steps of his recovery process. He started out as a stoic, regulation stickler, whose entire effort throughout the hijacking was to try to keep calm, keep his cool, remain the leader that he had to be. But at the end comes that emotional explosion, a release on a par with the Argo “crew” taking off on their airplane from the Tehran airport.

Captain Phillips was able to achieve that sense of catharsis through a story that was evocative when it came to discussing the trials and tribulations of Somalia and these seas around it, and by painting a distinct and impressionable portrait of two men who define that area in many ways. You come to care deeply about the fate of Richard Phillips and Muse, and will feel a surge of relief that he is rescued in so complete a manner – and maybe a bit of a strange relief for Muse too, who manages to survive and, perhaps, winds up in a safer place than the Somali coast.

And, it is important to note, that this is no flag-waving American patriotic vomit fest, as it so easily could have been. The attention given to the Somali side of things, the non-judgemental nature of that depiction, the fact that the film is mostly about civilian seamen and not US military personnel, these all combine to make sure that Captain Phillips avoids a trap that other movies, like Black Hawk Down, fell in to, at least partially. It helps that the director is British of course, proving a means of detachment from the subject that is so important (I’m looking at you Kathryn Bigelow). This is no standard Hollywood thriller where the anonymous pirates get outsmarted by Phillips and then blown to pieces by the US Navy. This is a smarter, and better, film than that, one that isn’t afraid to make the audience very sympathetic to the four hijackers, and has a director intelligent enough to understand that such a state of affairs being the case doesn’t have to reduce the connection to the Phillips character.

Acting wise, it is a very limited cast. In fact, beyond the two leads, no one really gets many lines or screentime to cover themselves in glory. But that’s OK, because what we get from those two leads is more than good enough to make up for it.

Hanks might not win an Oscar for Captain Phillips, but he almost certainly be nominated for one in what is his finest role in over a decade. Hanks has to spend the better part of two hours with the camera locked on him, has to be the guider and focus of the plot, and he excels in this role, breathing a great amount of life and believability to the Phillips character.

With Hanks, we go on a journey. Phillips starts of as an everyman, a committed husband, a hard worker, who wants success for his kids but also wants to see them work for it, the very model of the American Joe Regular. This is the kind of part that, critically speaking, some say Hanks plays too much.

Hanks plays Phillips to a tee, with a climax wrought with emotion.

Hanks plays Phillips to a tee, with a climax wrought with emotion.

But Hanks, from the moment he kisses his wife goodbye, starts evolving Phillips before our eyes. Suddenly he’s the tight ass boss who doesn’t like the lazy, contented way that his cargo crew is doing business. He snaps at them for an extended coffee break, is unhappy about lax standards when it comes to security, and orders drills over the eye-rolling First Mate. Everything about him in these sections is of a stickler for the rules, which continues during and after the first encounter with the pirates.

He faces them down, but with no small amount of worry, and later has to face down an unruly crew. He does so calmly and with no degree of menace, but the cracks are already forming, When the ship is taken by the pirates, that’s when things start to slip even more, and from there to the finale it is a journey of Hanks portraying a man on the edge, desperately trying to just keep himself together and his emotions in check long enough to survive his ordeal. He goes equal measures of supplicant and rebellious, understanding and inquisitive in his quest to undermine, unnerve and convince the pirates about the insanity of their course. Throughout the lifeboat section, you get the very real sense of a man trying to work out the best odds for his survival, and following that through with his every action.

But it is in the final 20 or so minutes that Hanks reaches his zenith. He attempts escape but is dragged back onto the boat, guns to his head, facing the very real possibility of death. The cracks widen and he tries with no small degree of quiet urgency to write what may be a last message to his family, already beginning to weep while he does so.

Then, a nixed execution and Hanks is left alone in the boat, sprayed with the blood of his captors and the visage collapses completely. Hanks’ Phillips howls with equal parts shock, relief, and presumably guilt over the young men whom he has played a part in killing. It is an extraordinary eruption of emotion from a man who we have seen abused and nearly killed many times over in the last few hours, the final step in the journey from the quiet American family man of the opening scene. Now, it is nothing but primal fury, and a loud exhortation of joy at survival.

From there, it is to a medical bay in the Bainbridge and a continuation as Hanks stutters and shakes through an examination, unable to process what is happening to him, unable to think straight or understand what is being said to him. He can barely tell the nurse that the blood he is covered with isn’t his before a further breakdown comes, an absolutely pitch perfect acting execution from Hanks, who gives us the very essence of the survivor in the initial aftermath of a catastrophe, a performance that reaches out and grabs you by the heart and makes you feel everything that Phillips is feeling, an intense and vivid mixture of happiness, fear, sadness and relief.

For creating that moment, or moments, Hanks can only have my highest praise. It truly was a wonderful experience watching him in Captain Phillips, and with those final scenes, he has once again cemented himself as one of the best practitioners of his craft operating today.

But he isn’t alone. Somali immigrant Barkhad Abdi is Muse, in what is his very first acting role. For someone stepping up to make his debut in such a high intensity production, Abdi not only succeeds in his portrayal as the pirate leader, but excels. He fills Muse up with so much calculated anger, risk-taking and determination that is was impossible not to be impressed by either the actor or the character.

His Muse is a young man pushed too far, but who manages to maintain an extraordinary grace under pressure, even if it is of the doomed kind. His is a quiet, somewhat reserved performance in many ways, but no less effective for it. Muse is a thinker, easily the most intelligent Somali featured in Captain Phillips, who lashes out only when he has to and only after putting the requisite thought into the action. He can be outsmarted and is frequently, but is never shown up as truly stupid. Instead, he is a very threatening individual, whether it is when he is searching for the Alabama crew on his own or patronisingly referring to Phillips as “Irish”.

Abdi, speaking a language that will be mostly unintelligible for much of the audience and using only broken English the rest of the time, had a hell of a task to make Muse someone relatable and sympathetic, but he pulls it off. Muse doesn’t want to be a pirate, he wants to be a fisherman, he wants to go to America and own a car. But life has denied him all of these possibilities, and Abdi makes sure that his Muse is the sort of young man who wears all of the injustice he has faced on his expression, which might seem aimless and dopey at first, but hides that grim nature that allows him to take one of his competitors out of the equation which such chilling ease, before maintaining a tight, but increasingly fragile control over his own crew.

Abdi, a complete unknown before this movie, is effective and sympathetic as Muse.

Abdi, a complete unknown before this movie, is effective and sympathetic as Muse.

The only key difference between Abdi’s performance and that of Hanks is that he never really gets an emotional catharsis moment on the same level as his co-star, his final act being to board the Bainbridge and hope that the US Navy isn’t trying to fool him. You get the distinct feeling that Muse knows he is being duped, but there are no other options left, so he, as resigned as he was to being a pirate on the orders of his societal superiors, resigns himself to being a prisoner. At least he gets out alive, his last look being one of numb acceptance of his fate, and perhaps a sense of guilt over the deaths of the three men he left behind in the lifeboat. Did Muse perhaps think that by getting on the Bainbridge he might be saving his own life? That this is a question we can ask legitimately is testament to Abdi’s performance.

The rest of the cast has little to do, basking in the reflected radiance of the main two’s performances. The other Somali pirates, played by Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysel Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali, are all undertaking their first major acting roles as well, and they all do a good job. Ali’s Elmi is probably the best of them, the youngest hijacker and the one with the most to prove, who turns into a whimpering wreck through a foot injury and a growing sympathy for Phillips. By the end of the movie, he loses all sense of menace and pleads with Phillips to do nothing that will get him killed, before he gets shot in the head, perhaps the pirate we mourn the most due to his youth and innocence. Abdirahman is also decent as the more angry Jamil, the outsider, who gets a strong dose of cabin fever on the lifeboat after running out of his stash of khat, and who greater embodies the stereotype of the mad Somali who can’t be controlled, by the end seeming more animal than man, taking the lead in the impromptu execution of Phillips. Together, they do a great job of making the pirates into a fascinating group of characters as well as a legitimate threat to the other players.

Max Martini is the unnamed SEAL team commander, and he’s stepping into well worn shoes, having basically played the same part in The Unit. He doesn’t get to do much at all hear, and his role calls for no great acting ability, just presence, with Martini has in spades. Michael Chernus is the suffering First Mate of the Alabama, the only crewmember who gets any measure of screentime from Hanks, and he’s fine, but forgettable. Lastly, Catherine Keener is Phillips’ wife Andrea, a surprisingly small part for such an accomplished actress, but she does fine with what time she does have, the only female actor of note in the production (something I am willing to forgive, given the exact subject matter). The  rest of the cast is too limited and one note to really mention, except to say that the few scenes featuring the crew of the Alabama as a group were uniformly competent and did their job.

In terms of visuals, Greengrass and his Director of Cinematography Barry Ackroyd, have made one of the most up close and personal films I’ve ever seen. With the exception of establishing shots and a few scenes of the pirates approaching the Alabama, nearly every shot is alarmingly close to one of the actors, with a very tight depiction of faces, figures and groups.

This is a film made almost entirely within the cramped, narrow confines of sea going vessels, be they cargo ships, lifeboats or Navy Behemoths. As such, Greengrass has decided to try and capture that feeling with a shooting method that is at times extremely claustrophobic in the way that it remains so close to the main players. This creates that sensation of being there for the audience, so important for the creation of tension, and allows Hanks and Abdi to use the full powers of their talent knowing that nothing in their expressions or delivery is going to be missed.

It is an indelibly effective method of crafting this story, a method that the production team has priors in. You need that sense of closeness, that sense of being there, an almost a faux-documentary feel. The use of handheld cameras works really, really well, offering that shaky (but not too shaky, thankfully) personal touch to the whole production, the exact kind of thing needed for a film of this nature.

What other camera work there is also very well done, Captain Phillips marked out by a number of good visual choices and shots. The opening conversation between Phillips and his wife is framed as if the audience is in the back seat. When he arrives at the Alabama’s docking site, the camera is placed skilfully to frame the cargo ship so we get an idea of its size while keeping Phillips there, right in our faces. The few moments of gunplay retain the close-up looks at the Alabama crew while placing the pirates far away, choosing the people getting fired at as the main focus, a clever decision. The moments when Muse wanders around the engine room in the dark are shot in just the right way to add to the nervousness of the scene, as he comes perilously close to finding the crew. When Phillips is taken onboard the lifeboat, its shot in such a way that it seems as if the entire crisis has been resolved, only for a brief nod and a sudden bout of violence to extend the situation. When the Bainbridge arrives next to the lifeboat, a wide shot is used to demonstrate its immense size and power next to the lifeboat. When the SEAL’s zero in on their targets, a constant switch from inside the lifeboat to the infrared of their viewpoints adds to the tension. When they walk away after the shooting, they do so silently, with the audience having never even seen their faces, a testament to their anonymous role in US special forces exercises.

A very, very good production on the visual side of things, all in all, and all of it done so simply. Other, grander productions should take note.

Greengrass prefers to keep things simple and up close on a visual front, including the few scenes of gunplay.

Greengrass prefers to keep things simple and up close on a visual front, including the few scenes of gunplay.

The script is simple but still good, a very believable and coherent offering from Billy Ray. From Phillips opening narration on the way that employment has changed in America since his younger days, to the final chattering responses to the Bainbridge nurse, Ray’s script provides an easy outlet for the characters to express themselves while staying within the bounds of realism.

Special attention must be paid to wordplay offered to the Muse character, which could so easily be ruined due to his lack of perfect English. Instead, Ray’s script merely enhances the broken delivery into something altogether captivating, helping to improve the character and give him a real sense of distinction.

Phillips too is written superbly throughout, matching his evolution of a character, from strict captain to negotiating hostage to blubbering wreck (though, on the last point, it is Hanks doing all of the work).

The script is filled with memorable lines and exchanges, though just about all of them come between Muse and Phillips. Muse dreams of “one day” going to America, and being able to “buy a car”, suitable foreshadowing for the ending where he is charged with piracy offences and transported to the US for trial. Phillips urges the pirates to reconsider their action and seek some other means of employment, but Muse shuts him mown by pointing out that there are none in Somalia, though perhaps “maybe in America”. Phillips uses the pirates previous employment as fishermen to try and reason with them, but, with a gun to a head, has to acquiesce with a terse and pleading “You’re not a fisherman” said almost as a compliment to Muse, as a boost to his ego, or perhaps as a stunned revelation that maybe he will be unable to talk these men down: they really are pirates, and a deal won’t be cut.

The score is a decent one, if somewhat unexceptional. It hits all of the required bases, stirring when it has to be, understated when it has to be, but will provide no great moments of music that will remain in the memory long after the credits roll. This is not the kind of film where a loud or notable score is a requirement really, since it is fixated on making the depiction as realistic as possible given the style of the direction. Henry Jackman hits the right tones and beats to add a little bit to proceedings, but that’s about it.

Onto themes then. A very obvious one is leadership. Captain Phillips can easily be seen as a treatise of sorts on the theme of leadership, with the contrasting management styles and reaction to crisis of Phillips and Muse providing the core syllabus.

Phillips is a standard manager at the start, who goes about his working day with enforcing rules and the like. Muse is a bit more loose – he picks unexpected people for his piracy crew because he sees something in them, and isn’t afraid to assert his authority in a violent fashion. Phillips does his fighting with words, and often leaves that up to his First Mate, a key difference due to their background. In the end though, both men seem somewhat disconnected from the crew they have to lead.

When the crap hits the fan, Phillips is obsessed with saving his crew and making sure they are OK. He drops hidden messages to them, leads the pirates astray, and does everything that he can to make sure that if anybody has to be in the firing line, it is going to be him. On the other side, Muse does everything he can to be seen as the guy in charge, talking down to Phillips and throwing around his assumed authority, though always reeling it in just a tad when dealing with his own men.

Once the action moves to the lifeboat, Captain Phillips becomes a leadership themed move focused on Muse only, as Phillips has succeeded in his basic goal of getting his crew out of the situation in one piece. Muse has a moment of partial triumph with the capture of Phillips but see’s it all come to nothing – he gradually loses control of both the situation and his crew. By the end of the film he’s lost it completely by his absence from the key stage, with his fellow pirates losing all of their sense in a khat-less rampage. Muse can’t handle things when they start to go wrong, and most importantly cannot bring himself to walk away. Phillips is undoubtedly the better leader, whose solutions could have gotten everyone involved in the hijacking out alive, but they run smack dab into the reality of life on the Somali pirate coast. Muse, trapped between a rock and a hard place, flounders around in the hellish vista of the lifeboat, until the end.

The final act, onboard the tiny lifeboat, is a claustrophobic and tension filled sequence, as the US Navy closes around the pirates.

The final act, onboard the tiny lifeboat, is a claustrophobic and tension filled sequence, as the US Navy closes around the pirates.

He does so out of sheer desperation, another key theme. Muse is a man, along with his fellow pirates, who sees his situation as having no way out. He has to take the ship, he has to take out his rival, he has to grab Phillips, he has to just keep chugging away towards Somalia without any hope of actually getting there. It’s that or an anonymous starving oblivion, a disaster not of his making, a situation that is both sympathetic and enraging. Muse is too smart for his profession, but he doesn’t seem to have any choice.

The increasing aura of desperation inside the lifeboat, as cabin fever hits, as injuries get worse and as khat runs out, greatly adds to the overall tension of the story. The pirates are a desperate band, the dregs of humanity who would probably rather be anywhere else, but they don’t have the same opportunities that Phillips, presumably, had. Phillips has his own sense of desperation, which grows acute in the final moments before his rescue, which adds to the enormous sense of emotional release at the conclusion.

There is also a theme of protection in Captain Phillips. Phillips wants to protect his crew, and is willing to put his safety and his life on the line in order to do that. On a much bigger scale, the United States wants to protect its citizen, and pulls out all of the possible stops in order to make that happen, surrounding a small lifeboat and four pitifully armed teenagers with some of the most advanced military technology and personnel available today. The idea of civus romanus sum is very much evident here, of a protection offered by that great superpower to its entire people, even that far away.

This is in marked contrast to Muse and his group, who barely have the support of their mother ship and associated warlord, and who are abandoned to their fate very early on. They have no one to help them, or try to protect them, except for, perhaps, Phillips, who ironically tries to get them to stand down and save their lives. That difference is key, and ties back into my previous thoughts on Captain Phillips being about a clash of civilisations, with very differing values when it comes to the worth of a single life.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about a theme of employment. Captain Phillips begins with the titular character offering a monologue on globalisation and the employment prospects of the modern day American, how things seem harder than they ever were. Across an ocean, Muse wakes to a sight of armed men ordering him to go to sea and get them another boat, with no options at all.

In the resulting back and forth between Phillips and Muse, employment is at the heart of it. Phillips appeals to Muse’s sense of naivety and innocence, wondering how a group of teenagers can choose this direction. Muse acts, as much as it is possible to, like a stone cold businessman. He rejects Phillips assertions that he could be doing anything else. Much as things have become harder for the generation after Phillips in terms of finding work, so it has become for Muse. Robbed of the ability to be a peaceful fisherman, he turns to a more violent and ultimately doomed employment.

Employment is everything in Captain Phillips. The lack of it is what leads Muse to hijack the Alabama, and the lack of it back home is what keeps him going beyond all sense, even with several US Navy ships in his way. That lack of a basic human function, the ability to work and earn a wage, results in the devastating finale when three young men with great potential are gunned down, while a fourth prepares for decades in an American prison cell, all as a result of a course that they largely did not have much of a choice to deviate from. They are the have-nots, which means more than just wealth. It means options too.

This is no preachy tale about the dangers of globalisation and the wealth divide between rich and poor of course. It might take those ideas and use them as a base to move off from, but Captain Phillips is content to show such things in as macro a level as possible, zooming in on these characters and their experiences with employment and what they mean in regards their circumstances, how it benefits one and insures the destruction of others.

I suppose it would be remiss of me not to mention the real life controversy over Captain Phillips, stemming from several of the Alabama crew disputing the details of the book it is based on – A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea – and the way that Phillips is depicted within. Their claims are that Phillips acted recklessly and with incompetence in his captaincy, steering the ship into dangerous waters without heed. While I find elements of the crew’s story to be slightly unbelievable, it is somewhat immaterial as to my opinion of this movie. No accusations against Phillips have actually been proven (as of yet) so I can’t allow them to influence my opinion of the production offered here.

In conclusion then, I must say that Captain Phillips is a great movie. It has a smart, capable plot, framed excellently by a top director, doing everything that he can to make it a visceral, real experience. It has two fantastic leads who have batted it straight out of the park, with Oscar nominations sure to follow. A competent soundtrack and an impressive script round it all off, making it a comprehensively good production.

But much more than any of that, it has a vast amount of emotional storytelling to offer an audience, of a genuinely compelling nature, which is sure to impress most viewers. Few films I have seen this year have managed to do the same, on this level, of reaching out, grabbing the mind of the viewer and bringing him/her along with Phillips and those pirates for the ride, all the way up to the breathtaking and heartbreaking finale. For that, Greengrass, Hanks and Abdi have my kudos and my recommendation.

A truly excellent film, featuring magnificent acting talent and an engaging storyline.

A truly excellent film, featuring magnificent acting talent and an engaging storyline.

(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures).

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7 Responses to Review: Captain Phillips

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