Thursday, 17 October 2013

Captain Phillips (PG-13) | Film Review

Captain Phillips, dir. Paul Greengrass, wr. Billy Ray, based on A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Rich Phillips and Stephan Talty, st. Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener

His supposed heroism may have been recently denounced, but there's nothing particularly heroic about a man forcibly bundled into steel sarcophagus-like lifeboat and carried off by Somalian pirates. Though astute and resourceful, Richard Phillips, captain of the US container ship MV Maersk Alabama, hijacked back in 2009, is shown to be rather brusque to his crew in the film's earlier moments. If anything, the extraordinary scene that closes the movie, in which a shell-shocked Phillips is medically assessed by the Navy, and the immense wave of sympathetic relief and cathartic resolution it evokes, forces us to consider heroism-by-survival. 

Equally astutely, the man responsible for putting us through the wringer is Paul Greengrass, a director who has made a career from crafting this very kind of skittish thriller. 2006's United 93, based on that ill-fated 9/11 flight, showed us, from a technical standpoint, what he could achieve with two hours and a reconstruction of a claustrophobic plane fuselage interior; here, he has the whole open sea to play with. And indeed, with his journalist's eye, his trademark restless camera and the ocean's rolling surf do not make for an easy watch. However, the efficiency of the US military response, and the speed and complexity with which they execute their rescue mission is terrifying in its scope and hardware. This is the film's real trump card - the chaotic balletic choreography of the pirate skiffs pursuing the vast shipping freighter like big cats attempting to fell an elephant, or Swiss Army knife-bowed frigates bearing down upon the bright orange escape-pod - achieve a near-unimaginable fluidity and orchestration. 

But the big let-down is what could have been the film's most powerful conflict - not the morally ambiguous clash between the desperate Davidian pirates and technologically superior Goliathic US military  - but the struggle between Phillips and lead marauder Muse (Abdi). Hanks, who portrays the defiant captain, certainly historically has the chops to carry off what might have been a richly complex and knotty meeting of minds as the two attempt to figure each other out, and newcomer Abdi summons an eerily authentic performance as the Somalian captor, just another guy, like Phillips, who must answer to a higher power, but Captain Phillips never truly delivers the contrapuntal scenes of intimacy needed to offset the large-scale nautical maneuvering that dominates the film. There are brief, snatched moments that play out the beginnings of such a relationship between the two, but the anxiety of the other three pirates in the lifeboat - a wide-eyed and panicked helmsman, the fearful and injured juvenile, and the trigger-happy muscle, riling Muse for leadership - crowd any opportunity for meaningful communication. Of course, we must assume this is how all it happened.

Certainly, Captain Phillips, like the leviathans of iron and steel featured in the movie, is rigorously conceived and robustly engineered, and Greengrass navigates with an innate, almost extra-sensory feel for pace and pressure. Sadly, after the 120-minute adrenaline-injectioned kineticism, there's a nagging feeling the rush was all there is.