Paul Greengrass #2: Captain Phillips

As I wrote in the last post, Paul Greengrass has developed a style which is composed of two distinct approaches to film; Hollywood thrills combined with politically-motivated realism. In Bloody Sunday we see his politics and realism dominate; in his two Bourne films, we see him tend much more towards mainstream thriller. He does both of these things exceptionally well, and bringing them together, as he does in Captain Phillips, results in a gripping thriller which is infused with, but not slowed down by, the real weight of political and social comment.

As with Bloody Sunday, the film is based on real events. In 2009, the US ship Maersk Alabama was hijacked by 4 Somali pirates, led by 18 year old Abduwali Muse. The Captain, Richard Phillips, was taken aboard a lifeboat and held hostage for five days until he was freed by a Navy Seal team. This film is based in part on the book written by Phillips. This is typical Greengrass territory; a real story of conflict and danger serving as a microcosm of much wider political tensions, exploited for opportunity to both thrill and educate an audience.

Film Fall Preview

Primarily, though, Captain Phillips is a thriller. The tension gets cranked up so much that it’s actually hard to keep watching at times. Tension, of course, is created by many things and Greengrass’ characteristic “shakycam”, combined with sensitive and responsive editing by Chris Rouse, serve to effectively recreate both the chaos of the actual hijacking and the almost unbearable claustrophobia aboard the lifeboat once Phillips is taken hostage. Aesthetically, it’s business as usual for Greengrass and, as usual, all the kinetic camerawork and jumpy editing strives to put us in the middle of the action. It works, I think; although it is much complained about, I’ve never had a problem with Greengrass’ cinematography since it suits his subject matter and overall style of edgy, nervy realism. If you’re in the anti-shake camp, though, there’s a facebook page you can join to vent.

Conventional wisdom tells us that mainstream film should be edited ‘invisibly’, that audiences should not even be aware of camera and editing, focusing instead on the performances. Although we’re definitely not in ‘invisible editing’ territory here,  the performances are easily strong enough to distract those who need distracting, for they are astonishingly good. Tom Hanks, an actor who I think struggles to escape his own persona – decent, warm, humorous – plays (very) slightly against type as the slightly officious, bossy Phillips. He nags his crew, frets about his son and comes across very naturally as an unremarkable father figure. By the end, however, we have come to be astonished at the resilience and courage of this very normal man, and the last ten minutes of the movie might well count as the absolute pinnacle of Hanks’ career.

Even stronger, however, is the performance by first-timer Barkhad Abdi. Playing Muse, the leader of the hijackers, he manages to convey youthful bravado and invulnerability with a mature understanding that he is trapped in a struggle between much bigger forces. We come to like him, indeed, and feel for him at the end; as with Hanks, there is a real star quality and charisma in Abdi which leaves the audience open to understanding the motivations for his character’s actions.

Muse

The relationship between these two forms the basis for the narrative. At the start, we are in fairly simple good/ bad binary opposition territory (although the ‘bad guy’ role is filled more by Muse’s very volatile sidekick, Bilal, played with ever-increasing intensity by Barkhad Abdirahman.) It would be very unlike Greengrass to leave this relationship uncomplicated, though, and there is always a sense that these two men, Muse and Phillips, are alike in some ways. Edwin Davies sees the film as ‘an examination of a clash between two captains, Philips and Muse… that is firmly grounded – or, perhaps more appropriately, anchored – in their shared humanity.’ As blogger SBT points out, both men are mere middle managers in larger organisations, working for and frustrated by bosses’ expectations; later, we see the commanders of warships in similar roles, eager to interpret and execute – literally – orders from their own bosses. What we see played out on screen is the human cost of interactions between vast national interests and tensions; but it’s done so well that it works basically as a struggle between two men, both trying to do their jobs as well as possible.

Greengrass doesn’t make too much of the socio-political context (although, bafflingly, Stephanie Zacharek writes that ‘there’s something about Captain Phillips that’s exhausting, and it may have to do with Greengrass’s insistence on trying to explain why unhappy Somalis would want to clamber aboard an American ship and start firing automatic weapons willy-nilly’; although ‘exhausting’ is exactly the term to describe Greengrass’ work, it’s hard to see where or how he has overdone the contextual material.) At the start, we see Phillips’ concern about his son’s job prospects juxtaposed with Somali villagers clamouring to be allowed to be part of the pirate crew. Later, he suggests to Muse that there must be employment open to him other than fishing or piracy. ‘Maybe in America, Irish,’ retorts Muse. There is almost a father-son relationship between the two, though the film never becomes quite that cheesy; but Hanks nags the hijackers about their doomed enterprise, teaches them how to operate the lifeboat, even gives Muse some advice on how a Captain should act. All of this, of course, gives the film an emotional richness and punch which most thrillers lack.

Overall, a superb film which works, as ever with Greengrass, on the head and the heart.

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