REVIEW: Captain Phillips

21 01 2014

From the outset of Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” there is a conscious attempt to mirror the film’s two leading men, the titular cargo ship commander played by Tom Hanks and the Somali pirate Muse humanized by Barkhad Abdi.  Where most films would try to draw attention to the gulf between them, Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray bring to light the comparisons few would ever make.

Phillips and Muse rally their troops in the same way, command authority similarly, and follow the scripted narratives their societies have written for them.  They’re explicitly paralleled in the structure of the script as well as in Greengrass’ visual language of “Captain Phillips.”  It leads to a provocative line of mental questioning, but the sort of political allegory for which they aim winds up slightly unfulfilled.

It feels like an appropriate cherry on what I view as an unofficial, non-consecutive trilogy for Greengrass.  This series of interrelated movies is composed of 2006’s “United 93,” 2009’s “Green Zone,” and 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” all of which are critiques of contemporary American power and its narrow-minded exercise.  It’s yet another outsider’s critique of the currently reigning global superpower, which you can choose to listen to or dismiss.

The least of the three, “Green Zone” is a rather obvious criticism of the U.S. invasion of Iraq under some rather dubious pretexts.  “United 93” might seem like a straightforward cinematic presentation of an important historical event, but it uses the ill-fated flight on 9/11 for the self-destructive ends of America’s myopic worldview.  In his treatment of that film, Greengrass described the hijacking as a “hermetically sealed world disrupted by a savage and violent act.”  The premise of his “Captain Phillips” sounds like a riff on the same thought, which makes the films interesting companions.

Tom Hanks

Not entirely unlike Flight 93, the MV Maersk Alabama is an American vessel navigating what should be safe waters.  The crew, however, finds themselves boarded by hostile Somalian pirates under the brash leadership of Muse.  In his debut performance, Abdi radiates confident self-assurance (his line “I’m the captain now” ought to send a chill up your spine) with tinges of the fear that he’s operating way out of his league.

The determination of Muse and his gang comes a surprise to Captain Richard Phillips and his crew, who assume they would realize the futility of their quest.  They also cast themselves as friends to Somalia as well as the rest of the Africa since their ships bring aid to the region.  Phillips, acting as systematically as possible to save his ship, uses as much ration as he can to level with Muse.  Tom Hanks is noble, selfless calm at its purest.  Moreover, he actually shows up to perform the character rather than leaning on the cultural symbolism that comes with his presence.

In the first half of the film, Phillips tries to outsmart Muse and lead him to commit a major unforced error.  The cinematography and editing races with the captain as to entrap his intruders, and it makes “Captain Phillips” absolutely nerve-wracking to watch.  The film then takes an unexpected turn that confines Phillips with the pirate in a small space after about an hour, and the tension lets up some while the plot seems to spin in circles.

It’s in this portion of the film where Greengrass really elucidates the central concerns of the piece.  There’s plenty of frank conversation between Phillips and Muse that proves quite intriguing.  The former can be seen as speaking on behalf of first world; the latter, on behalf of the third world.  It’s interesting to consider that perhaps Muse might have had an entirely different life had he grown up on the “right” side of the tracks, so to speak.

I felt overall, however, that Greengrass and Ray stopped short of really driving home the messages and themes they raised in “Captain Phillips.”  It ends on a note of pure shock and terror as Phillips comes to grips with the oppressive force the U.S. military uses to save him but leaves Muse’s story lingering in the air.  While both characters are compelling stand-ins for larger populations, the ultimate purpose of their representative functions feels somewhat fuzzy and unrealized.  B2halfstars

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One response

21 01 2014
jjames36

I agree. I think the first half sparkling and amazing, but because the second half abandons character some and goes instead for plot, it is less resonant. And less powerful.

Good review.

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