Watching “Captain Phillips”
Let me preface this review by saying that I have a difficult time enjoying movies that make me feel sick. And that the shaky camera work of “Captain Phillips” made me feel nauseous — so nauseous that at one point I considered bailing on the film. But I decided to gut it out. And now it is Wednesday afternoon, and I still feel a bit nauseous. Perhaps it’s time to stop blaming “Captain Phillips” for what is clearly some sort of cold. Or at least a bad case of malaise.
“Captain Phillips” tells the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the cargo ship the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates — the first successful pirate seizure of an American ship since the 19th century. At the time, this story generated a lot of “Pirates still exist — isn’t that crazy?” commentary, and it was easy to view the story with some amusement. But “Captain Phillips” makes it clear that having a ragtag group of modern-day and well-armed pirates take control of your boat is no laughing matter. This relentless, tense movie never lets up, unfolding with the fly-on-the-wall perspective and sense of immediacy characteristic of the cinema-verite school of documentary.
The opening scenes give us a sense of what it’s like to work on a large cargo ship, establishing Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) as a no-nonsense, highly competent and resourceful leader. He isn’t the most likable guy, but he seems to have the respect of the men under his command. Not long after the voyage begins, he learns that pirates have been spotted in the area. And despite his best efforts, the pirates — there are four of them, led by a man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) — board the ship and take Captain Phillips hostage while his crew hides in the engine room. For whatever reason, there are no guns on board, which forces crew members to get creative: They leave broken glass on the floor, so that the barefoot hijacker will injure himself when he steps on it, and cut the power to make it more difficult for the hijackers to find stuff.
The first half of the film is better than the second half, which got a little claustrophobic for me. In the second half, Captain Phillips is taken hostage on a lifeboat, and U.S. Navy begins its rescue operation. Through it all, the most compelling aspect of the film is the battle of wills between Captain Phillips and Muse. In this film, the hijackers are more than faceless, evil men; director Paul Greengrass has made an effort to show us the desperation of their daily lives, and taken pains to emphasize that piracy is one of the few opportunities for making money that the Somalis have. When Muse yells “Do I look like a beggar?” to the Americans, it’s hard not to think, “Well, yeah.” Much has been made of Hanks’ fine performance, but I was even more impressed with the charismatic Abdi — a first-time actor from the Somali community in Minneapolis. Muse’s actions are unforgivable, but I found it possible to sympathize with his character and circumstances. “Captain Phillips” often reminded me of Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” in its single-minded focus on a routine action gone horribly wrong, but “Black Hawk Down” made no effort to try to understand what drove the Somalis to attack the Americans.
Greengrass is best known for directing two of the Bourne movies, but he got his start with the 2002 film “Bloody Sunday,” about the 1972 shooting of 13 unarmed Irish Catholic demonstrators by the British, and also made the 2006 film “United 93,” which depicted the 9/11 hijacking that ended with a plane crash in a Pennsylvania field. All of his films are gripping, directed in a no-frills yet skillful style that makes them feel real. There’s no debating Greengrass’ talent, but I’m starting to wonder what the point of his approach to his subject matter really is. Is there a larger message? Or are these films simply about giving the audience an experience — about making people feel what it was like to be on Flight 93 on that fateful day, or what it was like to be on board a cargo ship when pirates took over?
But perhaps I’m downplaying the value in this type of cinematic experience. At the end of the film, when Hanks is being treated for his wounds, we learn what trauma is all about, as well as the mental and emotional cost of being taken captive and forced to fight for survival. And maybe this is message enough.
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