Film Review: Captain Phillips

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On Bored

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.

Directed by: Paul Greengrass

Country: US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 134 mins

Certificate: 12A for Tom Hanks' nipple, sea sickness and walking without proper shoes.

6 Responses

  1. brian says:

    I came across this because I was browsing for some comments on the peculiar use of music in this movie. You’re quite right that the ghost of john powell can be felt in the score, and even more so: they actually reused music from United 93 in the dramatic build up near the end. Not only that: the last track is embarrassingly close to plagiarism of hans zimmer’s “time”.

    But apart from that i really thought the movie was engaging, for the same reason that you thought it didn’t work. I thought Greengrass’ approach avoided the boring and obvious melodramatic elements that perpetuates almost every other hollywood production.

    “one must feel the human dimension and develop strong feelings toward both protagonist and antagonist” – yeah, we all know that, but there are many ways to achieve this and Greengrass succeeds with spare means, subtleness and highly effective directorial measures. By letting the emotions flow through the characters’ eye-movement and facial expressions as a viewer you’re allowed to put your own meaning into it, which is what made united 93 great, and so also this one. You’re allowed to feel whatever.

    In contrast, movies that build up heavy emotional support for the protagonist leaves you no choice.

    Could you mention any other action director that does a bteer job at this?

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      I can’t answer the question because I don’t accept your premise. I think I’ve been explicit in explaining why I think the United 93 treatment worked so well for that story but didn’t, for me, animate this one. There’s not much to add really. I don’t agree that a heightened reality need necessarily be boring or melodramatic – it can and does produce strong emotional and psychological effects that make the story “real” for an audience. By extension I don’t think we can say that the pseudo-documentary approach is automatically superior, or the appropriate choice just because your tale is based on historic events. I can understand why this was seductive for Greengrass; United 93 worked wonderfully well; but here less felt like less.

      I’m glad you felt a strong connection to the characters. I couldn’t. You misunderstand me if you think I’m suggesting that motivation and feeling should be signposted in dialogue, soes we dunt hafta fink. The best kind of movie dialogue alludes to the character’s preoccupations without being explicit, that’s a key part of showing not telling, but the emphasis in semi-improvised scenes is on hitting marks relating to the line of action. I don’t think the scenario was strong enough to get away with that arm’s length approach to characterisation. Sorry.

      • brian says:

        OK. As I read the review your main premise is that the context contains different emotional effect in this film than in United 93, but only superficially IMO. As I see it, CP encompasses the tragedy of the third world as a whole, expressed in a extremely condensed form in these desperate former fishermen. Also it portrays the grotesque differences to what a human life is worth, and how far one nation is willing to go in other to save these lives. That is how I perceived it and I take it to be the intention from the director.

  2. stew says:

    aaaaand thanks for revealing the ending

  3. Niki says:

    not too deep movie, surprisingly/ironically, when the cast is of a caliber of Tom Hanks.. even the current seemingly ‘romance’ movie “About Time” has -surprisingly- WAY much more depth & important moral lessons than this movie..

    I really miss when Tom Hanks cast in some DEEP movies (& lessons) such as Forest Gump, CastAway, and of course Cloud Atlas (one of my favorite!)…but not this movie… it’s only full of typical Hollywood’s “ACTION-here-action-there” …nothing more.

  4. Paul G. says:

    Yeah, just punishing, flat, procedural, and ugly to the core. You’re so right, we just don’t care… Where there might have been a glimmer of soul, or human interest, once the stakes were in place, instead we got the big bad military slathered on like shit on a cracker. I really didn’t like this film. But strangely, conceptually, I do like the way it pairs with another film I didn’t like, All is Lost. White men at sea… who’ve lost themselves to corporate interest (and get what their indifference, blindness, national narcissism deserves?)