Watch Captain Phillips Full Movie and POSTER
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chirs Mulkey, and Yul Vazquez.
The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years.
Some spoilers (though it’s a true-life story...but yeah, spoilers nonetheless)...
At the tail of significant publicity, Captain Phillips is released nationwide on October 18th, having premiered at the opening night gala of the 2013 London Film Festival and apparently boasting a career-best performance from Tom Hanks. Directed by Paul Greengrass, it recreates the events of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, during which four pirates hijacked a cargo ship off the coast of Somalia and took its captain hostage in a lifeboat.
To start with the positives, and where most people will likely agree - Hanks’ performance. He’s been so known and trusted for so long, but this is somehow new, and so, so impressive. You could say he’s showing hidden depths, or maybe more accurately, that he’s performing in a way we’ve not seen of him before. Either way, he’s really good. There’s no shortage of films showing his charisma (I stand by his performance in The Ladykillers as one of his most engaging) and there was a lot of talk of ‘Tom Hanks goes dark’ around Road to Perdition, but the film itself felt stable, measured, safe, an old-fashioned melodrama.
With Greengrass directing he’s on more difficult ground for someone of his level of fame. Matt Damon’s performance(s) as Jason Bourne were terrific, and were engrossing in part as Damon played someone performing the act of hiding, a man simultaneously learning and creating himself after an amnesiac episode and realising that the world, and his nature, won’t let him disappear.
Performance in United 93 is different. Had you lined up all of the main cast and been asked to pick who were the leads and who the supports, you would have had to pick at random. As Hanks himself put it during a visit Inside the Actors Studio, it features a cast of “the greatest actors [you’ve] ever seen, you don’t know who any of them are... [and] they look like every single person in this room”.
In Captain Phillips Hanks, an utterly recognisable face, is being asked to disappear (or so it would seem). And he does, as best he can. His performance is terrific, and for the most part, he is the film’s lead only due only to its title. But as the film continues and becomes more difficult to respect - a criticism I’ll explain at tiring length later - his casting takes on new meaning. The fact is this man is Tom Hanks, our modern screen everyman, and not a genuine everyman, not someone we don’t know, like the real Richard Phillips, but someone you know and trust as intimately as you can a screen actor, and his opposite or other, Barkhad Abdi (as Muse, aka lead pirate) is entirely new to us. However, historically-speaking neither Captain Phillips, nor his crew, nor any one of the Somali pirates were known to one another or the masses. As it is now, Richard Phillips has been made known, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse much less-so. And Captain Phillips follows this path, not by delving enormously into one character’s background over another, but simply by casting one of the world’s most well-known faces, a representation of an everyman, as a ‘real-life’ everyman, while casting an unknown as his surprise captor. Thus the film subtly affects the aftermath of a historical episode within a simulation of said episode.
After a perfunctory opening sequence in which Hanks and Catherine Keener have to deliver some utterly plain lines providing evidence that they’re the average American family - the script is at times broadly-drawn and didactic, grating against Greengrass’ direction - we’re introduced to Phillips’ workland; shipping. Greengrass skillfully helps us feel the space of the ship and Phillips is presented as a stringent but fair-minded leader.
In parallel, we’re introduced to Muse, who is rushing to assemble a crew of pirates at the request (to put it lightly) of his higher-ups, whose presence is felt much more than it is explicitly shown. The early sequence of the hijacking is brilliant, the moment in which the Alabama fights back with water jets triggering that same primal ‘put-the-boot-in’ feel which is built piecemeal across the length of United 93 until it pounds away in its closing minutes. When that happens so early on here it seems to announce - for me at least - that this rush of fear and excitement isn’t what we’re focusing on. We’re beyond thrills. (And don’t let this suggest that thrills are ‘mere’ - they’re a craft, and Greengrass is a superbly proficient craftsman). Instead we’re witnessing two men, contextualised within their respective countries and cultures, and how they are not only similar, but perhaps inter-dependent. The film feels like it’s about balance, relating that which is personal to the global, but as it makes its way it seems to take a pretty clear side.
Obviously it’s unfair to say what a film should be doing, one can only respond to what it did, and does. And while it’s also unfair to compare Captain Phillips to United 93, the context clearly allows for this.
United 93 also follows both its victims and hostiles - for want of better words - from the get-go, but takes a peculiar stance in that it is attempting a level of objectivity, while by its very nature needing to select its scope. We watch the events of the plane - speculative as they are, in part - and on the American ground. Nothing is seen of the hijackers’ equivalents. Presumably the desire for historical accuracy demanded this; there’s simply little evidence of what was happening.
In Captain Phillips we’re introduced again to both victim - Phillips - and attacker - Muse, followed by his team - early on. It’s made abundantly clear from the opening that these are two men united by their common, contemporary - though very relative - stations. They both have bosses (in case you couldn’t tell this from the action on screen early on, you’ll be told so in the closing act, as if it’s a great reveal). These bosses apparently, in Muse’s case, will brutalise or kill an employee for a bad day’s work, and in Phillips’, accept on their employees’ behalf the possibility of danger and disallow them defence beyond hoses and a flare gun. This is all good material for a dissection.
And this surely is what the film is about, what the film presents itself as; a deconstruction of real-life events masquerading as a thriller, a drama about two men with equatable lives due to their both living within the specter of capitalism. Of course it’s true that Phillips’ ship is carrying aid cargo to undernourished countries, but he stands - if I can be maybe too reductive for a moment - as an everyman making his way as best he can within a culture of greed and hoarding, taking all for itself and dishing out what it will. His other, Muse, is much the same, only the practicalities are different; his society is impoverished - one gets the impression perhaps because of its indirect relationship to Phillips’ - and he is trying to scratch out a living. (Just look at the film’s trailer, which uses as its climactic, isn’t-this-intriguing punch a dialogue between Phillips and his captor: “there’s gotta be something other than kidnapping people...” Phillips asks. “Maybe in America, maybe in America” Muse responds). There’s no genuine human pleasure in terrorizing another, we’re simply on a scale of empathy, and Muse can’t allow himself much for Captain Phillips. The only way it seems he can support himself is by force.
Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), the hysterical wildcard of the pirates, is equally indicative of the film’s issue with balance. You start by getting annoyed with him; you think firstly that’s because his performance is one-note, and the character is thin. Then you spend a while thinking it’s not that his character is thin, it’s that he’s really, believably scary, and you’re just upset that he’s so upset, and you don’t want to see him lash out. Then you start to get frustrated because you can see the film not investigating why he’s like this, what strictures are limiting his freedom and creating this terrifying and terrified beast. And the film doesn’t. Somewhere you hope there’s a longer and more detailed cut, or script, really pulling out the viscera of this event and piecing them together (why mention this character is ‘from another village’, signifying its importance, if we’re to be given no understanding of its relevance?).
Much of the second and third act’s tension is built around the proposition that the US Navy would rather destroy the lifeboat and its human cargo, crucially including Captain Phillips, than let the pirates reach Somalia with their hostage. This again levels the playing field; we’re watching a group of men trying to survive in a situation which is far out of their control, where those in control are at the opposite end of a labyrinthine path of economics and morality, both politicised and human.
Come the end this is left by the wayside. Just prior to the (admittedly enthralling) sequence of a catatonic Phillips being examined by a Navy medic, crying, gibbering, tearfully realising that the blood on his torso “isn’t mine”, we see Muse arrested by the US military, and hearing that his “friends” are all dead. No such time is given to this awful moment of realisation as Phillips’. This character, whom history will tell us is perhaps as young as 16, it seems is under threat of severe physical harm or death if he fails at his job. Thus he accepts a very suspicious deal with the US government and is ultimately tricked. But any exploration of this thread, suggested but ignored throughout the film, is finally lost amidst focus on Hanks’ vivid performance (not to mention that of the Navy medic), the remarkably Inception-like rising score, and the air-punch coda, telling us how Captain Phillips was back on the sea a year and change after this petrifying experience, while his captor was sentenced to three decades in prison.
As it is, Captain Phillips could almost be described as a pretentious action-thriller - a simple, albeit expertly-directed edge-of-the-seat drama made all the more potent by its being based on historical fact. All I’ve said notwithstanding, it is a captivating thriller, which would hopefully reward repeat viewings, after a stretch, and reveal directorial subtleties I may have missed first time, and which really do reveal ideological depths and texture. Paul Greengrass is a director with uncommon intelligence and skill, but the more one sees his films - and I should admit I’m only familiar with his work since the Bourne sequels - the more they feel like the work of someone ingrained in the mainstream, increasingly safe, abiding, rather than someone shaking his audience, jolting us out of our seats.