No one makes a terrifically tense, exacting drama quite like Paul Greengrass. His latest is another film structured like a mountain climb, with nothing but a sheer cliff waiting for you at the top. Based on Captain Richard Phillip’s telling of the 2009 events aboard the Maersk Alabama (which is itself a source of disagreement and outright controversy), Greengrass’s film is another of his ruthlessly paced, precision-focused thrillers.
Anyone aware of the events on which the film is based know well that this is a story that all led to, quite literally, a single nano-second’s worth of climax. In lesser hands, this would not be an inherently untenable story for a film to tackle without exploiting enough cheesy tropes to fill a shipping container. Here the sophisticated construction of Billy Ray’s screenplay and Greengrass’s militarily refined execution instead make this film the very definition of cutting-edge-of-your-seat storytelling.
The film has already been and will continue to be faulted for mythologizing Phillips, but a closer look will show the film treats him very much with the same lens as it does the pirates. Both parties are given single scenes that set up the kind of lives they come from, and the concerns they have. As he joins his ship and begins the voyage, Phillips is in fact shown to be a bit of a dick. Even the charm of Hanks doesn’t dispel the generally unfriendly tone the captain takes with his crew, and when shit meets fan he doesn’t prove himself a sudden strategic genius either. Sure, you can perhaps call it old fashioned mythologizing of the reserved, competent image of an ideal captain of industry. The problem there is Philip’s stammering, often poorly-improvised –though ultimately calm and successful– handling of the situation reads more as realism than glorification. All that to say if there was an agenda, turning the good Cap’m into a idealized hero was not at the top of it.
Once the two vessels find each other in the oceans off of Somalia, Greengrass’s immediately-energetic filmmaking kicks into high gear. He delights in symphonically capturing the race between a behemoth vessel and a shitty speedboat, as calls are made and evasion attempted. More than ever before, the director’s trademark choatic coverage morphs into thoughtful, designed sequences that reveal the intention and focus at play. There also begins a distinct analogizing of the two crews, which becomes one of the film’s most compelling characteristics. A subtle comparison of the crews, their leadership, their handling of crisis, the manner in which they regroup and, ultimately, the way they’re driven by the interests of other, unseen interests develops across the course of the film. This doesn’t result in redemption of pirates or any meaningful indictments of capitalism to poke at the red or blue-minded. The subtext digs deeper, perhaps suggesting that the hyper-connected world we all have made has made cogs of us all. That said, Barkhad Abdi is an engrossing presence in the movie as the lead pirate, anchoring the film as much as Hanks with a layered, performance. The result is a pirate you don’t want to succeed, but one you maybe don’t want to see shot in the face either.
Ultimately only one set of cogs has the might of the United State Navy behind it though and, once the situation becomes militarized, the film careens towards an inevitable breaking point. This is where things get nail-bitingly tense, every passing moment like a breathe held for another impossible second, a taught muscle clenched an iota tighter. Greengrass is a master of exploring this tension at length without ever losing it- something that sets his films apart from those of any other director. The gasp of air eventually comes but Greengrass has never met a denouement he won’t ruthlessly lop off, and Captain Phillips ends up featuring one of the most simple, powerfully evocative come-downs I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s the kind of scene that wins people and films awards all on its own, and had me welling up from pure relief/shock. I’ve felt that specific feeling exactly twice before, both times moments after surviving a major car crash.
Perhaps you’ve found yourself on top of a tall building or overlooking a huge canyon and contemplated the enormous height for just a moment too long. As the credits roll on this film you may find yourself with feeling is a bit like the one that hits when you step back and have your feet firmly planted again.
Like Zero Dark Thirty before it, Captain Phillips also finds endless spectacle and suspense in that cloud of inevitability that sits on anything involving the US military. That sense that, one way or another, people are coming to take care of this as definitively as God himself would. That can, at times, be at odds with the wants of storytelling to find humanity and nuance when we are ultimately waiting for the moment when the Deus Ex SEALS arrive to put the bullets in the right place and solve everything. Ray and Greengrass handle it though, beautifully timing and juxtaposing what we learn about characters and what they feel against what is happening around them. The film powers ahead with the momentum of a 15,000+ ton freighter and when it abruptly halts, you’re left sitting in your seat with the full energy of that momentum crashing into you all at once. It’s a hell of an experience.
Between Gravity, All Is Lost, 12 Years A Slave, Upstream Color and even movies like Iron Man 3 and the Evil Dead remake, films this year have featured a strong PTSD streak. Our screens have been filled by character after character experiencing acute trauma and emerging from it –in one form or another– irrevocably changed. Collapse and confusion are on our minds even as there is a general sense of looking back on the worst of it- all marked by a lack of confidence that that is actually the case. Even if the boat’s no longer sinking, we’re still on choppy seas. But whatever subtext you’d like to pull from it, there’s no doubt Captain Phillips succeeds as an entertaining film filled with great writing, top-notch filmmaking, and compelling performances. It is one of the year’s singular experiences, and yet another cinematic triumph from a filmmaker who has no shortage of them.