Those absorbed by Paul Greengrass’ docu-drama United 93, were heartened to learn he’d be reconstructing the story of unlucky mariner, Richard Phillips. Phillips was in command of the MV Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship en route to Mombasa, when it was besieged by a quartet of Somali Pirates. A hostage crisis, involving the US Navy followed. It’s the kind of searing historic human drama tailor-made for Greengrass’ “faction”; movie thrills delivered with a documentarians’ sobriety. Ground the performances, ensure the camera is in no way fixed to the ground and encourage improvisation for that added realist aesthetic; yes it worked like a dream on 9/11 redux – what could go wrong? Well it turns out the events depicted make a difference. Captain Phillips is a fine piece of filmmaking that only comes alive in the last five minutes. That’s five in one hundred and thirty four. Reality fails to bite.
Context played a huge part in elevating the events of United 93 to nerve grating levels. Audiences entered the fray conscious of the historic weight tied to the drama; the scale of the tragedy. That metatexual dimension worked in tandem with the film’s low-key approach to produce moments of almost unbearable tension. Understatement works when the material speaks for itself. In contrast Captain Phillips doesn’t have such an absorbing tale to tell. It’s meaty, certainly, containing all the elements of a great thriller – an armed siege, a game of cat and mouse, a sea-bound hostage negotiation backed up by a US warship – but something’s missing: human interest.
Try as we might we just can’t get a handle on Tom Hanks’ Cap, Barkhad Abdi’s pirate captain or the crew of the Alabama. The performances are uniformly convincing but the treatment renders these men flat and unengaging. Writer Billy Ray’s seen this problem in his nightmares and has duly prepared placeholder scenes to stoke audience empathy; Phillips discussing his kids with wife Andrea, Muse’s impoverished environs and the brutal bosses demanding a bounty, but it’s no good; we just don’t give a shit. To understand, it seems, is not enough; one must feel the human dimension and develop strong feelings toward both protagonist and antagonist. It’s a challenge that Hollywood’s heightened reality often meets very well, but vérité tut-tuts at such crude manipulations. It wants the truth, damn it! Even if the truth is that the line of action is more interesting than the people involved.
All of which is very frustrating because Captain Phillips could and perhaps should have been a real nail-biter. Unfortunately it plays like a distended Crimewatch reconstruction, albeit better filmed, beholden to a real world timeline that robs the third act of any and all pace, as well as a methodology, imported from United 93, that doesn’t suit the material. Only the final scenes, with Hanks breaking down under medical examination pack the emotional wallop the story demands. Perhaps events don’t allow it any sooner but the absence of feeling throughout most of the running time is a problem the filmmakers never satisfactorily resolve.
On a production note, the stylistic incongruity extends to the movie’s score – for the most part reprised from United 93. That’s mystifying when each was composed by a different man. Did Henry Jackman consciously borrow from John Powell? Perhaps someone should make a movie about that.