Director: Paul Greengrass, 2013 (PG-13)
Greengrass has shown in his two earlier Bourne films (Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum) that he can direct a good thriller. With United 93, he proved he could capture an audience even if the ending was known. Here, like United 93, Greengrass tackles a true-life drama, one whose climax is clear to most viewers. Based on the events of 2009, Captain Phillips tells the story of the hijacking of the US cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. Yet, he sustains the suspense and tension to the end, even ratcheting it up so that the last 15 minutes is a tense white-knuckle affair.
The movie opens with two scenes that set the context for the rest, and give some backstory. The first shows Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) being driven to the airport by his wife (Catherine Keener in a cameo role). This shows Phillips as a family man, as ordinary as you or me. For him, captaining a vessel is just a job.
Boarding the vessel in the middle east, he turns the consummate professional, ready for any eventuality. His crew is his concern. He takes his leadership responsibilities seriously. When radar evidences two skiffs approaching, it is apparent that pirates are at hand. Despite evasive action, four pirates do end up aboard. This begins the first phase of the captivity. With most of the crew in hiding, Phillips acts as a tour guide of sorts trying to protect his men while leading his captors on a search and capture mission. The second half of the film and the second phase of captivity begin when the pirates take Phillips and his cash and depart in an enclosed lifeboat.
The second introductory scene focused on the pirates in Somalia in their village. Poverty-stricken, with dirt-floored huts and little else, these men are shown to be terrorized by others who force them to a life of piracy. Their options seem few and far between. The leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), has to select a handful of other men to fill the two boats, and then put out to sea with a mission of making money, through piracy and kidnapping, for his bosses. If he comes back empty-handed he might not live to see another dawn.
Greengrass uses this scene to demonstrate that piracy, though clearly a criminal activity, is not a black and white affair. The criminals don’t choose this lifestyle out of desire, unlike Captain Jack Sparrow the best know pirate on the big screen. The choose it out of compulsion. The morality of their choice is never explored, but it lies there beneath the surface of the sea all the while they hold Phillips captive. It humanizes them in a way, making them less terrorist than terrorized criminal.
Indeed, the film might be a tale of two captains. Muse tells Phillips at one point, “I am the captain now. And though the film is anchored by a majestic performance in the title role by Tom Hanks (who was criminally ignored by the Academy), Abdi, in a debut role, gives an outstanding performance that earned him an Oscar nomination. Together, these two actors (one novice, one seasoned) deliver a captivating pair of performances.
One of Muse’s accomplices, Bilal, is from another village, and he seems brutal, willing to inflict violence at any time. The second hour contrasts these two pirates as Phillips sits in a tight seat waiting to see which one will win out. Meanwhile, the US Navy has been called out and is on hand to negotiate release or effect it with clinical violence courtesy of Seal Team Six.
When the Navy arrives, the film’s tension escalates. With hand-held camerawork, the viewing is a visceral experience showing the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tightly enclosed boat. Hanks has to communicate his changing emotions mostly through his facila expressions.
There are no real faith elements involved. None of the main characters call out for divine help, though perhaps they should. But Phillips acts like a leader should: resolute and dependable. He puts himself in harm’s way to protect his crew. His actions place him in the lifeboat. At first, he seems confident that he will survive. But as the film progresses and as Bilal becomes more violent, his façade cracks and he seems to lose hope. Toward the end, he becomes almost desperate, simply wanting to let his family know he loved them, much like the passengers on the ill-fated plane in United 93.
Despite the lack of faith references, Captain Phillips makes us reflect on the true captain of our lives: Jesus. He is resolute and dependable. Whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in, he will be there with us (Matt. 28:20). He never leaves us (Heb. 13:5). We can trust in him as the anchor for our souls (Heb. 6:19). We may never have the Navy come to deliver us, but Jesus will. He is better than any Seal Team Six operative.
The final scene is cathartic. It shows a shell-shocked Phillips being led into a medical cabin on the Navy vessel. Playing against a real-life female Navy medic, Hanks delivers an improvised performance that is painful yet purifying. Crying and failing to get words out, these closing moments allow the release of tension for Phillips and for us. With the silence that follows, this is cinematic catharsis at its best.
Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs