With measured satisfaction, I can report Captain Phillips is a solid thriller. Satisfaction is “measured” because, with the filmmaking talent behind the film, it could’ve been so much more. Director Paul Greengrass has made a career out of twisting expectations, taking straight thrillers like the Bourne films and infusing them with geopolitical subtext and emotional undercurrent. He has also taken true-life dramas (Bloody Sunday, United 93) and turned them into stunning pieces of verite catharsis. Here, tackling another fact-based tale, he seems to be on cruise control, following the story from A to Z without any sharp political accents or subtle emotional flourishes. It’s compelling enough, but there’s more brewing beneath the surface that is largely ignored.
No, I’m not referencing the controversy surrounding the real-life story, in which several members of Phillips’ crew sued the company responsible for sending the cargo vessel into dangerous waters and exposed Phillips for refusing to adhere to warnings to steer clear. I’m not looking for a Rashomon-style recounting of events from multiple perspectives… though that might be intriguing, too. However, taking all the elements into account — from the titular character’s stubbornness to the poverty and subjugation that drives modern-day piracy to the disturbing swiftness and exactitude with which the American military machine can stage a rescue – I did expect more of a polemic, one that was unafraid to look through the surface conflict and glimpse the messy implications that fueled said conflict. Based on Greengrass’ filmography, that expectation isn’t unreasonable.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a primer for the uninitiated. In 2009, an unarmed American cargo ship was boarded by pirates off the coast of Somalia, one of several attempted hijackings that took place in the region and gained particular media attention between 2008 and 2010. This one had unique traction since…well, it played out like the plot of a movie. In the film, Tom Hanks plays the captain, Richard Phillips, who is stern and methodical at all times. He’s very dry and matter-of-fact when discussing the future of his children with his wife (Catherine Keener), and he’s efficiently by-the-book when he boards the Maersk Alabama, inspecting the ship’s security and testing its controls. Late one night, he receives an email warning of piracy near Somalia, advising him to move further from the coast. He acknowledges the warning but doesn’t act, opting instead to prep his crew and react if necessary. It soon is necessary, as a speedboat carrying four armed Somali pirates chases down the ship and the pirates board the ship in-motion.
The story is certainly compelling, but the screenplay, written by Billy Ray, plays like a mechanical reenactment of the real-life events, accented with movie-tastic one-liners for both the villains (“Look at me! I’m the captain now!”) and the hero (“If you want to shoot someone, shoot me!”). It’s a solid thrill-ride, since the tension between Phillips and central villain Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is high and the crewmembers’ attempts to stay under the radar by navigating the underbelly of the ship is a fascinating logistical predicament. But if one were to peel away the surface tension, one would discover far more than the film is willing to deliver.
Specifically, there is a commentary to be made on the subject of poverty and hunger in Somalia and its surrounding regions that would lead to the formation of these pirate missions. These are dangerous people committing serious international crimes, but they are not simple, dastardly villains – there is a story behind their actions. To deny us an understanding of their plight does a disservice not only to the depth of our understanding, but also to the depth of the cinematic tension, since the film suffers from stretches of emptiness that serve no other purpose than to tread water in between the moments of suspense. The best thrillers take advantage of would-be lulls in action, filling silences with anticipation and dread, or subtly revealing depth of character in ways that elevate the high-energy sequences with the emotions that boil underneath. Captain Phillips, more often than not, is content to simply let its story play out without much nuance or subtext.
And yet, the film is a qualified success. There are a handful of riveting sequences and a couple of truly powerful moments. Abdi is a revelation as the driven pirate leader; the entirety of the pirate crew – none of whom have ever acted before – are incredible. Hanks is solid and serviceable until the film’s final 15 minutes, when he is required to go darker and deeper, probably clinching an Oscar nomination in a sequence that is riveting in its action and moving in its emotion. Had the entire film reached the level of that last 15-minute sequence, it might’ve been a masterpiece. As it stands, Captain Phillips is, simply, a solid thriller… no more, no less.