Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass' tense movie about the April 2009 hijacking of the freighter Maersk Alabama by four Somali pirates, is a love song to the patience-through-overwhelming-fire-superiority of the U.S. military.
Unless, of course, it's a Dog Day Afternoon-style chronicle of the final days of a few sympathetically inept criminals who want money, not blood, but who end up dead anyway. What's empirical is that the film spends more screen time on the hapless, teenage pirates than on any of its other characters, save for Richard Phillips himself — played by America's everydad, Tom Hanks, whose next role will be that of Walt Disney.
Like last year's Zero Dark Thirty, Greengrass' new movie is Based On A True Story and climaxes with a successful operation by Navy SEALs, those precision instruments that we rightly revere. And while Captain Phillips tells a far simpler story, covering days rather than years, both films strike me as Rorschach blots onto which anyone can project individual beliefs about how and when America swings its big stick.
Except — and I'll label this paragraph as a spoiler, mostly because Dana Stevens considered it as such in her Slate review — Captain Phillips doesn't quite end with the SEALs grimly/awesomely taking care of business. It takes an extra few minutes, after the Navy has rescued Phillips from his captors, to show us see how exhausted, frightened, and sickened he is by the ordeal — and no one is likely to mistake that response for ingratitude. Maybe those tears Jessica Chastain shed in the last shot of Zero Dark Thirty were for our national soul (I doubt it), but I don't think this pair of scenes, wherein Phillips is too drained to speak, walk unassisted or do anything other than howl and weep is intended as a metaphor for anything.
Unlike the concurrent Gravity, which brilliantly sustains tension by never cutting away from its protagonist, Captain Phillips lets us in on the turning of wheels to which neither Phillips nor his opponent/captor, the pirate leader Abdulwali Abdukhad Muse (Barkhad Abdi, giving a performance at least as persuasive as Hanks'), are privy. That lower left-hand corner of the screen keeps flashing datelines. Interchangeable Naval personnel give and receive orders via radio. We see the SEALs board their plane in Virginia to fly halfway around the world and skydive into the Indian Ocean, where three naval warships have converged to block the pirates from escaping to Somalia with Phillips as their hostage. (The SEAL team leader is played by Max Martini, whose freakishly right-angular jaw has damned him to be cast only as soldiers or cops. It's a weird problem for a guy whose name literally means "peak capacity fancy cocktails" to have.)
The SEALs' arrival by parachute is as it happened in real life. Still, it must be expensive to film a parachuting sequence, and this one is brief and unspectacular — so why is it in the movie? Is Greengrass trying to underline the vast expense the U.S. will accept to send the message that if you mess with one 55-year-old Merchant Marine seaman from Vermont, you mess with us all? Or, more likely, that disruption of the shipping lanes will not be tolerated? This incident was the first (briefly) successful hijacking of an American ship in 200 years. Few that get taken have the benefit of such a response, a fact the film seems to acknowledge with a single line, conveyed via radio from an Admiral whose face we never see.
When the eroding hostage negotiation is suddenly resolved by three snipers' bullets in three pirates' heads, Greengrass presents it as a moment of horror, not of triumph. It plays like a moral counterweight to news reports like this one, which celebrated the SEALs' marksmanship as a feat of athleticism — which, let's not kid ourselves, it was. (The lifeboat Phillips was taken captive in is on display at the Navy SEAL museum in Fort Pierce, Florida.)
Nothing about Captain Phillips smacks of exploitation. By casting Hanks as the curt but honorable captain, Greengrass has spared us any further intervention to make the "character" more "likeable." Still, I'm never sure how much I'm supposed to enjoy depictions of recent tragedies, even ones as seriously and well-made as this.
Greengrass has earned the freedom to do more or less what he wants, having made the second and third films in the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too Bourne series — high-end popcorn movies that at once condemn and delight in mayhem. (As the soulfully amnesiac super-assassin Jason Bourne, Matt Damon never looks like he's enjoying all that kneecap shattering and windpipe punching, which makes us feel better about enjoying it.) He started his career as a documentarian, and he continues to make documentary-ish films like this one.
I doubt this can be said of Greengrass' United 93 — despite its sterling critical reputation, I've never been able to bring myself to watch it — but Captain Phillips offers substantial entertainment value. I don't recall any jokes, but there are a couple of expertly staged action scenes. A sequence wherein the crew of the Maersk Alabama uses fire hoses and evasive maneuvers to try to prevent the pirates from affixing a ladder to the hull and climbing aboard, is, with apologies to John Woo and my beloved James Bond franchise, the only exciting boat chase in any movie, ever. Surely it's okay to feel caught up in moments like these.
Ridley Scott's film Black Hawk Down was the first film I can recall to trigger this queasiness. Based on Mark Bowden's superb nonfiction book about the a botched 1993 attempt to capture a Somali warlord—resulting in an all-night firefight that left 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis dead — the movie was made before, but released soon after, 9/11. Like the book, the film expresses awe at the talents of U.S. Special Forces operators (the Army's Delta Force in this case, not the SEALs), even as it depicts a failed mission. The film retains some of Bowden's observations about the workplace culture of the elite sections of the Army, and a little bit of his geopolitical analysis. But it's overwhelmingly a war movie, an action movie. In translating Bowden's 486-page prose account to the most visceral story medium, Scott can't help but trivialize the event somehow.
Captain Phillips doesn't do that. There's something appealingly 1970s-like in its refusal to editorialize. It can afford its humanism because Phillips lived to write a book. It has patience, albeit through overwhelming fire superiority.