Captain Phillips review: High tension on high seas with Tom Hanks, pirates
Captain Phillips is the first Hollywood film that made me desperately crave an interval.
There’s been much growling of late about the Indian movie-watching experience, courtesy Woody Allen objecting to his newest film, Blue Jasmine, being defaced with the anti-smoking warnings that the government of India has deemed mandatory. However, far more disruptive than “Smoking kills” popping up at the corner of the frame at unexpected moments is the interval.
An interval or intermission at the cinema is a very Indian phenomenon. While Bollywood films are written and made with it in mind, Hollywood films are not conceived as the sum of pre-interval and post-interval parts because movies have no intervals abroad. As a result, when we watch a foreign film in India, the interval is forcibly inserted into it. Most of the time, it destroys the pace of the film.
Captain Phillips is the first Hollywood film that made me desperately crave an interval. If the film hadn't paused at about an hour into the story, I might have died of a heart attack in the cinema. That's how taut and tense Paul Greengrass's new film is.
Usually, films build up to a breathless climax. Greengrass, however, doesn’t bother with things like buildup. Within about 15 minutes of its first scene, Captain Phillips goes into the fifth gear and things slow down only at the end of the film. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship that is journeying to Mombasa.
The route that Phillips and his crew are taking will cross the dangerous Somali basin which is infested with pirates. Sure enough, when they enter those waters, two motorboats start following the Maersk Alabama. Captain Phillips manages to lose one of them but the second is captained by Muse (Barkhad Abdi). As they stare at each other through binoculars, there’s that chilling awareness that these Phillips and Muse are frighteningly well-matched. Not just that, Muse’s desperation — the warlords back in Somalia will kill him and others if they don't come back with ships that can be held for ransom — may well give him an edge over Phillips.
The cargo ship may be a engineering triumph, but it’s slow and virtually defenceless. All Phillips can do to defend his ship is direct water hoses at the approaching pirates, hoping the force of the water will keep their boat away. On the other hand, the pirates have guns and they have their captain, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). At the end of a fantastic, nail-biting sequence, Muse and his men are aboard the Maersk Alabama. On the other side of the screen, your heartbeat is racing and you may realise that you’d forgotten to breathe for a few moments back there. Oh, and you’re barely 30 minutes into the film.
Over the next two hours, it’s Muse against Phillips in a battle of wits and for survival. If Phillips wins one round, like when he’s able to save his crew, then Muse wins the next and Phillips catches up right after. Eventually, Muse wins a big point: he and his men take Phillips hostage. By this time the American anti-piracy ship has shown up and the Navy is on its way. But everyone's on the clock. They must get Phillips before Muse’s little lifeboat – stolen from the Maersk Alabama – leaves international waters and enters Somalian territory.
An actual ship called Maersk Alabama, captained by Richard Phillips, was attacked by Somali pirates in 2009 and even as it was unfolding, the incident seemed to be made for Hollywood. It had all the necessary ingredients: an ordinary man who becomes a hero in extraordinary circumstances, a frightening villain, a blood-flecked climax. Cinematically speaking, Greengrass is a brilliant choice for Captain Phillips. With films like United 93 and two Bourne titles to his name, Greengrass is the perfect storyteller for a film whose success rests upon the plot unfolding at breakneck speed. A shade slacker or a beat slower, and you’ll notice the film’s niggly bits. If you know a little bit about the actual incident, the pace of the film might just distract you from how the real story has been twisted and flattened to suit Hollywood’s patriotism and sense of heroism.
Greengrass finesses the plot with details that ensure Captain Phillips isn’t an obvious addition to the America-is-Awesome genre of movies. Contained in scenes and throwaway lines is sharp critique of America’s superpower status. For example, when the pirates are surrounded by the American navy and anti-piracy forces, you can’t help but wonder whether all this might is necessary to overpower a humble lifeboat. Also, as Greengrass shows us, Muse is more footsoldier than leader. He’s one of many young men who are forced by local warlords to go hunting for ships that can be held for ransom. He is easily replaced, which is what makes him and the piracy he represents so dangerous. Abdi is able to infuse a mixture of fierceness and helplessness in his remarkable portrayal of Muse. This is Abdi’s first film and despite playing the bad guy, he isn't overshadowed by Oscar-winner Hanks. It's a remarkable performance and a brave one since Abdi will probably not win much love from the Somali community in America for being part of a project that shows Somalis as villains.
However, the star of Captain Phillips is Hanks and his ability to be so utterly normal and unaffected is amazing. He is the reason the film becomes an emotional experience for the audience. There’s a scene near the end in which Hanks has to show Phillips realising, as his adrenalin rush abates, what a terrible ordeal he's been through. It could have been a maudlin scene, but Hanks's performance is so controlled and yet credible that you forget this is a man acting. Thanks to Hanks, Captain Phillips is able to put a human face to the American machine that will hunt down people like Muse.
Despite Greengrass’s attempts, the politics in Captain Phillips and its relationship with fact is disquieting. There’s an unsettling cruelty and coldness to the Somali pirates. One of Muse’s men spends most of his screen time roaring, flaring his nostrils and behaving irrationally. There’s no concern from the Somalis for the young boy who is on his first ride with the pirate crew and gets badly injured (only Phillips shows him some kindness). At times, Muse is almost diabolical in his coldness and no one would guess Abdi is playing a boy who was only 16 years old when all this happened.
All this contrasts sharply with the humanity and concern shown in Phillips and his crew. Phillips comes across as the classic American hero and the plot of the film ignores the detail that Phillips’s decision to take the route through the Somali basin was a bad one. The crew of the Maersk Alabama have actually placed the blame of the hijacking on the captain and Phillips himself admitted he didn't offer himself up to the pirates in exchange for the safety of his crew. But that's the version that's immortalised on film.
It’s a little disappointing that Greengrass became complicit in this project that twists history instead of recording it, but that doesn’t change the fact that Captain Phillips is a cracker of a film. It’s crafted with such precision in terms of acting, editing and direction, and it takes the audience on a breathtaking ride. Just don’t forget that Captain Phillips may look realistic, but it's mostly fiction.
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