Cutthroat, by Craig Schroeder
There are three things that can be rationally assumed when you hear that Tom Hanks is starring in Captain Phillips, the new film from Paul Greengrass. One, with Greengrass at the helm, the film will be a technical spectacle. It is. Two, Hanks will bring charming gravitas to the everyman persona of the titular captain. He does. And three, with a name like Captain Phillips, everyone involved has resigned to the fact that they’re making a film with the least evocative maritime title since the Cuba Gooding Jr. vehicle Boat Trip. But I’m happy to report, that despite its uninspired title, Captain Phillips is an inspired film (and, for the record, much better than Boat Trip).
Captain Phillips recalls the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. commercial ship, by a band of Somali pirates. Captain Richard Phillips is a middle aged family man, looking forward to an empty nest with his wife, Andrea, played by the always charming, but woefully underused, Catherine Keener. Richard Phillips is a rather banal figure and the film recognizes him as such. But Captain Phillips is about the primal survival instinct in even the most ordinary of humans.
Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to Captain Phillips, is that it is a Paul Greengrass film from the very first frame. Greengrass and frequent collaborators editor Christopher Rouse and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd have created a technical opus that has come to define Greengrass’ work. Its ripe with shaky handicam shots, that are as frenetic and chaotic as they are poetic, and quick cuts that dictate a feverish, yet still disciplined, pace. All of this is shot through a color palette that is almost surreal in its attempt to capture the exact milieu of the world it emulates.
Admittedly, I have an ill-informed perception of pirates, dictated mostly by Johnny Depp, Muppet Treasure Island and the pirates of lore and yesteryear. The word “pirate” conjures money-hungry opportunists, with knives clenched in their teeth, whose sole motivation is the raucous pleasure that comes with the plundering and exploitation of the indefensible. As a society, we understand piracy to be awful and the film doesn’t waste time convincing you of this. Instead, Captain Phillips introduces the pirates as human beings, motivated by not just greed and cynicism, but by desperation. The structure of the film introduces both Captain Phillips and Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the de facto leader of the hijackers, on equal playing fields; not as victim and pirate, but as two wildly different people with decidedly similar goals: survive when things go wrong. Muse is one of many in a tumbledown village on the coast of Somalia. When a caravan of gun toting bandits comes recruiting, promising riches and a better way of life, Muse gleefully joins them. Greengrass knows that watching a desperate man make catastrophically wrong decisions is just as interesting as watching an unremarkable man made desperate.
But once Muse and his gang board the Maersk Alabama an odd thing happens: the film’s desire to understand its villains fades in favor of the knife-in-teeth pirate that only exists in pop culture and Disney rides. The band of pirates that were introduced as three-dimensional characters in the first act become shallow background in the second. The mounting tension relies heavily on the notorious reputation of pirates rather than on the characters that have already been defined.
Luckily, Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, does not allow his character to become the pastiche pirate the screenplay often calls for. When the script stops treating Muse like a human and starts treating him like a one-dimensional villain, Abdi doesn’t seem content to fade into the background. And for that matter, Greengrass doesn’t seem content to let him, recognizing the brilliant performance Abdi is giving and allowing him to exist as a human and as a villain. I considered not including Abdi’s background in this review, for fear of patronizing him or making it seem that my reaction to his performance is solely dictated by his unlikely career trajectory, but how the hell can you not talk about it? Abdi and his co-stars, and fellow on-screen pirates, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali are Somali transplants making their big screen debut opposite the biggest movie star on the planet. Tom Hanks, both as a personality and as an actor, is a tour de force, and Barkhad Abdi matches him, beat for beat. Tom Hanks gives remarkable justification to a character that is fleshed out and fully realized on the page. But it’s Abdi’s realization of a character that seems to be marginalized by the script, that stands out the most.
The story of the Maersk Alabama doesn’t have the emotional or transcendent resonance of a United 93 or the classic Hollywood charm of a Bourne film, but Captain Phillips is about as effective a film as any other in Paul Greengrass’ filmography. The pacing and editing of the film, specifically in the final half hour, are as enthralling as they are anxiety-inducing. Greengrass, amidst, or perhaps because of, his display of technical proficiency, is able to keep raising the stakes, creating a cloud of paranoia and desperation that permeates through the screen and into the theater. Parallels can be drawn between the final half hours of Captain Phillips and last year’s Zero Dark Thirty. But where Zero Dark Thirty, mostly as a function of the story it’s telling, has to break focus from its central character, Captain Phillips is able to use these climactic scenes, and the resulting falling action, to develop Richard Phillips even further.
Though Captain Richard Phillips is the focus of the story, Captain Phillips is about so much more, which is what makes that title so damn frustrating. It’s about desperation. It’s about the United States’ paradoxical reputation as both capitalist braggarts and as a lifeline to the weak and huddled masses. The film is a technical chef-d’oeuvre. It’s a study on the misanthropy of international piracy. It’s a film that’s far more evocative and thought-provoking than its name suggests. But, Boat Trip was taken. What are you gonna do?