For the past 10 years, English director Paul Greengrass has been Hollywood’s go-to guy for American stories that need an outsider’s perspective and skepticism; consider United 93 (the first real 9/11 film, not counting The 25th Hour), The Bourne Supremacy & Ultimatum (anti-imperialist spy flicks), and The Green Zone (the only Iraq movie to suggest that our military’s intentions were anything but noble, which has been completely forgotten in the wake of The Hurt Locker).
Never didactic and rarely preachy, his specialty has always been conflicts with intersecting gray areas, where the good guy can be wrong and the bad guy can be right.
Barely a trace of the man described above is found in Captain Phillips, the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates and ensuing hostage crisis surrounding Captain Richard Phillips. For all its strengths—excellent performances, managing to be suspenseful even when the events and resolution are all publicly known—
Captain Phillips is a wasted opportunity.
The issue of Somali piracy is ripe for the Greengrass treatment with all its complexity around issues of international trade, jurisdiction, wealth and poverty, and corporate exploitation of water belonging to a country with no means to protect its interests. This isn’t to say the movie needed to be explicitly political, but with no reason to exist beyond telling the facts of a true story, the dialogue between Phillips and his captors goes nowhere, and
the whole thing devolves into a military procedural that looks like Zero Dark Thirty’s unused b-roll.
It’s all excellent icing on a mediocre cake.
The film opens in Vermont, with Phillips and his wife driving to the airport as they discuss the ways in which the world will be different for their children than it was for them. He occasionally lingers on email warnings of piracy on his assigned route, but he appears undeterred. Meanwhile, in Somalia, well-dressed and well-armed thugs seize an impoverished village and compel them to take a ship for unstated reasons. This is a promising start that effectively illustrates that two very different worlds with their own unstoppable forces are about to collide, with no easy way to reconcile the two. (Except Navy SEALs.)
The bigger question here is why are sympathetic antagonists always portrayed as victims of circumstance, but the protagonists are never agents of the same circumstance?
The American crewmen are all believable people with simple motives (just doing their job) while the Somalis are simple people with complicated motives. This is not even footing, dramatically speaking. As the seizure goes underway, the leader, Muse, is shown to be thoughtful and not without empathy, but the three other pirates each have exactly one emotion: meek, angry, let’s-just-get-this-over-with. Additionally, the MV Maersk Alabama itself was not there to dump nuclear waste, overfish, or transport illicit arms to brutal warlords (probably)—unlike many other ships which have done exactly that off the coast of Somalia. This is a much more interesting motive for an act of piracy against a nominally innocent ship than a barking guy with a gun.
Tom Hanks gives what may be the best performance of his career, particularly in the concluding 15 minutes, and we can only hope that the very promising Barkhad Abdi finds future work as something other than a man with an AK-47.
Captain Phillips is a should-see for what it does well, but hijacks its own efficacy by undercutting its potential.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS | PG-13 | 10.11.13