Fair warning: As with my recent review of Rush, I won’t be shy with spoilers for today’s picture. After all, this isn’t just a movie based on a true story, it’s based on a heavily-documented story that only happened four years ago. Of course, some liberties were certainly taken (especially since some details remain sketchy), but whatever.
Captain Phillips dramatizes the Maersk Alabama hijacking that took place off the coast of Somalia. The event was notable for being the first successful pirate seizure of an American ship in 200 years. It was, however, only one of many incidents that turned international attention toward African piracy in 2009. At the time, the Maersk Alabama was under the command of the eponymous Cpt. Richard Phillips, who later wrote the biographical account that the movie is based on. Cpt. Phillips himself is here immortalized by way of Tom Hanks.
I was puzzled to find Kevin Spacey listed as an executive producer, and I can’t seem to find any clue regarding why. I’d guess that he was considered to play the lead at one point, and that would certainly have been interesting to see, but this portrayal of Cpt. Phillips could only have been done by Tom Hanks. The film portrays Phillips as a blue-collar Boston man with a very down-to-earth sensibility, yet he still has a kind sort of charisma that you’d want in a leader. Moreover, Phillips spends most of the movie trying to charm and mislead the Somali pirates while hiding his pants-shitting terror, and that’s a mix of emotions that Hanks could play in his sleep.
This role is so far deep into Hanks’ wheelhouse that his performance here looks effortless. Yet strangely enough, Phillips turns out to be the least interesting main character in his own movie. I mean, sure he’s stuck in a terrible situation, but the character is never truly overcome with fatal desperation until the very end, when it’s too late to do anything with that. Through pretty much the entire running time, there’s always a reasonable amount of certainty that Phillips will come out of this alive (and no, the fact that he’s played by Tom Hanks has nothing to do with it).
Compare that to the real stars of this movie.
The Somali pirates’ de facto leader is Muse (pronounced “moo-SAY”), played by Barkhad Abdi. He’s accompanied by a skittish teenager (Najee, played by Faysal Ahmed), the hot-headed muscle (Bilal, played by Barkhad Abdirahman), and… um… the driver (Elmi, played by Mahat M. Ali). I hasten to add that all four of these actors make their debuts with this picture, and it’s damned impressive that they were able to deliver such dynamite performances on their first try. Granted, Elmi wasn’t given anything memorable to work with, but that’s hardly the actor’s fault.
Anyway, Phillips opens the movie by musing about how the world has gotten much more complicated, so it’s gotten that much harder to find success. Keeping your head down and doing the work just isn’t enough anymore. It’s Phillips who introduces the idea, but it’s Muse who really hammers the point home. After all, if guts and work ethic were all it took to find success, Muse would’ve been the head of two or three international companies by now. Say what you will about Muse, but the guy makes it abundantly clear that he won’t back down from a job. And why would he, when he’s got nothing to lose?
What’s more, we first meet the hijackers when some Somali warlord comes to town, calling for volunteers to go hijack a ship and bring back money. This invites an interesting parallel between the hijackers and the crew of the Alabama, and it’s a parallel that’s repeatedly brought up as the narrative continues. When you get right down to it, these are all just people who are working under the orders of someone else. Hell, they’re actually bringing money back to their bosses in exchange for leftover crumbs. Granted, one line of business involves shipping cargo — which includes food and fresh water for charity, I might add — and the other involves piracy. On the other hand, given that Somali pirates are shown to be bullies concerned only with making money by whatever means necessary, I’d go a step further and argue that the pirates are doing literally what several big corporations do figuratively. But forgive me, there I go being more political than the film does.
Then again, the film does offer some very interesting comments about the Somali pirates and why they’re out hijacking ships. We’re treated to a fascinating scene in which Muse describes the ransom payment as “taxes.” Ships are sailing through Somalian waters (technically international waters, not that it makes a difference to them) and the Somalis want their cut. As to why they’d hijack a ship full of food for hungry Africans, well, maybe the food aid wouldn’t be necessary in the first place if all those first-world companies didn’t send their massive fishing vessels to the region. But my favorite moment in the scene comes when Muse talks about the $6 million payday he got from hijacking a Greek vessel. Six million dollars, yet Muse and his crew are still dirt-poor and hoping for better fortunes the next time they do the exact same thing. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the Somalis’ logic is totally ignorant (perhaps willingly so) of all the international complications that make these multi-faceted issues so complex. Nothing they’re talking about is as simple as they seem to think it is. Their actions are proof enough: The Somalis all think and act as if millions of dollars will suddenly rain down if they wave a gun around. They threaten someone, they get what they want, period. When that doesn’t turn out to be the case, they either go apeshit or they keep repeating the same routine while expecting things to turn in their favor.
This brings me to the main difference between the Somalis and the Americans in this picture. And no, it has nothing to do with the Americans’ advanced technology or their bigger budgets. Remember, these Somalis were the first since the 19th century to board an American freighter (albeit an unarmed one), and they did it with tools that probably cost less than one of the crates on board the Alabama.
The Somalis could easily have come away victorious, but they had already lost by the time the Navy showed up. Why? Because the Somalis didn’t think. All through the movie, we see the Americans work through communication, cooperation, planning, procedures, improvisation, etc. By comparison, the Somali crew becomes increasingly volatile as things continue going wrong. Hell, the Somalis are squabbling among themselves before they’ve even taken the Alabama, killing each other in the process.
They’re not a team, they’re not organized, they don’t know a thing about American tech, and their conflict management skills consist entirely of “no tricks, or I kill everyone.” They don’t plan out any kind of strategy, and they stupidly think that guns are an effective substitute for outsmarting the enemy. Worst of all, the Maersk Alabama has a safe containing $30,000 in cash, and Cpt. Phillips hands it over to them with no conflict. The pirates could easily have left with the money and called it a day, but they were stupid and greedy enough to think that they could bully the U.S. Navy into getting millions.
When you get right down to it, the Somalis are just paranoid thugs with guns and massive inferiority complexes. They’re all in way over their heads, and there’s never any doubt that it won’t end well for them. Yet they keep on digging their holes ever deeper, because that’s all they know how to do. In fact, given how far they’ve come and how desperate their lives are back home, the pirates couldn’t back out even if they wanted to. For better or worse, this is the hill they’ve chosen to die on. That makes them very tragic figures, and the aforementioned America/Somali parallels make them especially sympathetic.
A final note on the Somali pirates: It’s worth pointing out that the film barely devotes any time toward depicting their home lives or what poverty-stricken Somalia is really like. It might have helped establish the characters’ utter desperation if we had seen for ourselves that they have absolutely nothing to lose. Then again, the Somalis all look skinny, sickly, and I doubt that any one of them could spell “bath.” Just from looking at them, I think it’s safe to assume that life sucks for them.
This brings me to the film’s other big star, Paul Greengrass. The director deserves no shortage of credit for making this film work, since he shot the film with his trademark “cinema verite” style. The whole film has a very immediate and immersive feel to it, which gives the presentation an almost visceral punch. I understand that Greengrass went to a great deal of effort in recreating the real-life events — even going so far as to painstakingly replicate the lifeboat’s interior and shoot the film on a Maersk vessel identical to the Alabama — and that effort really shows in the final product. Best of all, Greengrass’ style lends itself to some truly gripping action sequences. The SEAL Team skydive is an especially dazzling case in point.
However, that’s not to say the camerawork is effective across the board. I’m sad to say that the camerawork is loaded with extreme close-up shots taken with shaky handheld cameras. Granted, I’ve seen far worse camerawork ruin far better movies (*coughShortTerm12cough*), but I simply cannot let this slide. For the life of me, I can’t understand why DoPs would ruin their own visuals by shaking the camera to such a distracting and obnoxious degree. I realize that this is becoming a trend in filmmaking, but I’m not getting used to it. I’m just getting depressed by it.
Yet even with sporadic abuses of shaky-cam, Captain Phillips still delivers some incredible action sequences and tense drama. The American/Somali parallels are very smartly delivered, and the Somalis themselves make for some compelling tragic figures. Best of all, everyone in the cast turns in a fantastic performance. Tom Hanks is of course fantastic, but all four premiering actors playing the Somalis deserve a lot of credit as well.
It’s a shame that Captain Phillips came out while Gravity and Rush are still in theaters, though I suppose it’s just another reason why this is a really good time for moviegoers right now. Yet even in this crowded month, I can gladly give a recommendation to Greengrass’ latest.