by Tony Dayoub
[A disclaimer: Though I actually saw Captain Phillips at a hometown press screening, I thought I'd present it alongside the rest of the films I'm watching at the New York Film Festival since it was their opening night gala selection. It opens in theaters across the country Friday, October 11th.]
The 2009 hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa was destined to become a movie in some form or another. That Paul Greengrass, action director of the two most popular Bourne movies and United 93, got his hands on it before it was relegated to TV movie status is, I suppose, the better alternative. Based on the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips, the Alabama's captain, Captain Phillips is a knuckle-biter of a suspense film, depicting the siege in a way that still elicits fear and tension from events most of us know the outcome of. So now that we've established that I believe Captain Phillips is a well-executed nerve-jangling thriller, lets talk about its problematic politics, a subject which often arises when discussing Greengrass's films.
Last time I reviewed one of his movies, Green Zone, my issue was with its distilling of the left's opposition to the Iraq war into the part of one lone soldier played by Matt Damon. It's an oversimplification that succeeds when dealing with the binary politics of conservative action films and didn't necessarily fit with the more nuanced elements of that film's liberal argument. Save for a prologue in which Greengrass equates the competition among the cutthroat Somali pirates with that of the capitalist marketplace, Captain Phillips mostly sticks to the black hat vs. white hat aspects of its story. And it works... up to a point. Tom Hanks is as congenial a representative of American bravery as one could find and, as Richard Phillips, he ably allies us with the ship captain by keeping his emotions in check for most of the film. There is nothing we Americans admire more in our heroes than cold professionalism. Hanks imbues the saavy Phillips with that and more, at least until the final, post-rescue epilogue in which the actor perfectly nails the toll his captivity has had on him, the shock that overtakes the man in an overwhelmingly cathartic scene where we finally see the all too human failings in the stalwart hero.
Sandwiched in between Captain Phillips' subtle first and last acts, is a straight-ahead procedural that mechanically goes through the best known moments of the standoff as if marking things off of a checklist. In this way, the film is not unlike the kind of Lifetime TV movie it almost might have been. It is this chapter that is the most problematic because, without delving deeper into the ideas Greengrass introduces at the start of the movie, what we get is a stereotypical depiction of evil African villains attacking a vessel full of hard-working, regular joe white guys. Despite the best efforts of the not untalented Barkhad Abdi to make his terrorist Muse sympathetic if not completely likable, the pirates—buck-toothed, malnutritioned and bug-eyed—might as well have come out of a early, colonialist Tarzan picture. Abdi has a strong enough screen presence to hold his own with the likes of Hanks. But I find it hard to fathom how this role will help him gain traction in Hollywood as anything but a frightening lowlife in future films.
With no new insights to offer on the economic situation that caused the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama—at least nothing beyond what anyone already knows from watching the news—the question becomes what was the point in making Captain Phillips in the first place? It certainly seems like its another in a long line of films celebrating the ingenuity of a lone, sophisticated Westerner against terrifyingly primitive, dark-skinned interlopers. And Lord knows we don't need yet another one of those movies.