Sunday, December 01, 2013

Captain Phillips / ***½ (PG-13)

Captain Richard Phillips: Tom Hanks
Muse: Barkhad Abdi
Bilal: Barkhad Abdirahman
Najee: Faysal Ahmed
Elmi: Mahat M. Ali
Shane Murphy: Michael Chernus
Andrea Phillips: Catherine Keener

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Billy Ray. Based on the memoir “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips & Stephan Talty. Running time: 134 min. Rated PG-13 (for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use).

When you hear that director Paul Greengrass is attached to a project, you know you’re going to get more than a movie; you’re going to get an experience of some kind. In 2006, Greengrass directed “United 93”, which remains to this day an unequaled experience in filmmaking, by recreating the events that took place on 9/11/01 on United flight 93 in harrowingly realistic detail despite the fact that there were no survivors to corroborate any of those details. That film tapped into a national need for understanding and hope about events that scarred the nation forever. His new film “Captain Phillips” captures another set of real life terrifying events that also played out in the national media, but on a much more personal level.

“Captain Phillips” tells the story of the hijacking of American merchant marine vessel Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of its captain by Somali pirates in April 2009. Based upon Phillips’s memoir of his experiences, Greengrass’s vision is to put the audience in Phillips’s shoes with a few details about how the events came to be and how they were resolved. The casting of Tom Hanks as Phillips achieves much of the filmmaker’s work in itself, but the entire movie is masterfully made and only suffers a little through that mastery.

Greengrass starts the audience out with a conversation between Phillips and his wife on the way to the airport at the beginning of Phillips’ fateful voyage. They talk about two things on their car ride, during which Greengrass films from the back seat and never really allows us to see their facial expressions, emphasizing their words. They talk about two things that appear to be closer related than most of us might think—jobs and the increasingly volatile world in which we live. They worry that one of their sons may not have the drive to fight his way through the world as it is today. They also worry about Phillips’s safety.

The theme of working your job is ever present throughout the film. Phillips is all business, never personal with his crew. He’s not a pleasant boss for which to work, although he’s depicted as more fair here than apparently some of his crew felt he was, as evidenced by their lawsuit against him and the shipping company for which they worked. Before placing the crew in the hijacking situation, Greengrass places a great deal of emphasis on the jobs that must be performed on the shipping vessel and the protocol behind them.

The Somali pirates are presented as men who at least think they are just doing their jobs. Besides Phillips, the Somalis get the most attention character wise. They claim to have been fishermen who were forced into the life of piracy because the shipping lanes along the Somali coast caused all the fish to leave or die out. They seem awfully young to have been fishing for that long. Phillips has his doubts about these claims as well.

Finally, the U.S. Navy exhibits efficiency in the way they approach their jobs. First the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge handles hostage negotiations until a Navy SEAL team is brought in, then the SEALs “get it taken care of” in such a manner that we get to see the deliberate care they take in doing a dirty job as right as is possible.

Despite all these jobs represented, the Billy Ray screenplay treats them as elements that come in and leave when their part is finished. Little attention is given to motivation, character development, or event plot development. Even Phillips is seen through most of the movie as merely working the situation; only in the final moments of the film do we get a glimpse into the mental anguish he went through. Even this is presented in a dutiful manner as a naval doctor talks him through the shock that he’s experiencing using a very clinical approach.

Some of these glimpses into the various duties executed during this historical event raise questions that are never answered, never even addressed by the filmmakers. Why is the protocol what it is? How does Phillips’s crew feel about what they’ve experienced? Why are the SEALS called upon so quickly? A line is given to explain this last question, but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. There was a media frenzy that developed over the story at the time, but it seems as if the filmmakers expect their audience to know this fact rather than exploring its historical context.

I believe the omissions in development are quite deliberate by the filmmakers, however. These seeming artistic oversights serve to isolate Phillips further from the world that we know and immerse us more profoundly within his experience. Hanks does his job by exhibiting the same efficiency with his character as Phillips does with his own job of protecting his ship and his crew. We feel his need to stop the pirates from boarding the ship. We relate with his desire to remove them once they’ve taken it. We share his frustration when the Navy’s caution seems to drag his rescue out beyond the point where his survival seems possible. And finally, we experience the same emotional breakdown he does once the ordeal is finished.

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