Captain Phillips had a lot to live up to after Paul Greengrass' last docudrama United 93. In many viewers' eyes, Greengrass might just be the guy who gave us Matt Damon in a pair of solid Bourne films but to me he is the director behind one of the most tragic and gripping films of the 21st century. He is politically charged, emotionally manipulative but also bloody effective.
Captain Phillips invites comparisons with United 93. Both are based on tragic true stories, though Captain Phillips is considerably less tragic, particularly for the American victims of the stories. Both find at their centre a very modern conflict of cultures. Both feature four armed attackers taking on Americans by hijacking a mode of transport. Both have differing amounts of sympathy for the attackers but much more for the innocent victims. Both employ shaky camera aesthetics to give it an added sense of realism and quick cuts that make it appear edgy and captured by a fly on the wall documentary team. The claustrophobia is also palpable in both films. In United 93, the attackers and the victims are trapped together in the small space of a passenger plane and in Captain Phillips much of the action takes place on a tiny cramped lifeboat where Phillips is forced in to close contact with his captors. In both films, many in the audience will already know how the story ends before they see it. Greengrass even employs some of the same techniques when shooting the film such as keeping those playing his protagonists and antagonists apart until they meet on screen. The music even sounds almost identical, despite being created by different composers.
On the other hand there are also distinct differences between the films too. In United 93, it was Arab Muslim terrorists that took over a plane to crash it into a Washington landmark for their religious and political ideology. In Captain Phillips it is Somali pirates that take control of a container ship, not for religion but for business; simply to make money. While it would be easy to say that the pirates of Captain Phillips are less sympathetic for having no more nobler cause than to get rich quick, it is actually far from the case. Greengrass only barely humanised his terrorists in United 93. He gave one a hurried farewell phone call and showed the nerves and fear that they were feeling before they took over the plane. However there was no backstory, little motivation and even less differentiation between the attackers.
In Captain Phillips however, Greengrass makes the film absolutely tragic from start to finish and it's not because of the threat to American lives, though Hanks' performance will guarantee to have you shedding a tear by the end. Instead it is because of the four young Somali men who take the boat and then begin to rapidly lose control of the situation before ending up the biggest losers of the film. Whereas United 93 ends with tragedy for all involved, Captain Phillips ends with only tragedy for its Somali underdogs. The unknown actors have come out of nowhere and seared themselves into audiences memories. Their terrifyingly gaunt faces are not the work of Christian Bale and his wonder diets. They feel real and they are heartbreaking. Barkhad Abdi has been singled out for praise by many as the captain of the pirates but his whole crew are incredible, more than holding their own against Hanks. I don't want to sound racist or offensive but they look like skeletons and their faces like skulls. They are so skinny and desperate looking, so young and inexperienced that you cannot help but sympathise with them. Like in United 93, Greengrass uses unknowns to keep things real with Hanks being the only concession to Hollywood star power.
The fact it all goes so wrong for the pirates and that their leader ends up as a hostage and then finally arrested is as saddening as the effect it is likely to have had on Captain Phillips. Even if there have been accusations that Phillips was not the hero as portrayed, Hanks delivers a heart breaking performance by the end but the death of the desperate young men is never completely overshadowed.
The Somali's feel like real characters. We see their homes, their circumstances, their ruthlessness and the weaknesses. The fact that no one was killed proves perhaps that they were not bloodthirsty animals (or perhaps that they simply were aware of how much each American life is worth). Instead they are absolutely tragic young men completely out of their depth throughout. It might play to mass audiences attraction to seeing third world violence and despair but in amongst the real-time blockbuster thrills is a clear and powerful political message. Contrasting the pirates' homes with the container yards makes for a sickening comparison of first world wealth hoarding and third world desperation. It really does not feel like the Somalis have much choice in what they do in life. They have been stripped of all opportunities and must take something back if they are to survive. The young actors give life and breath to the tragically young men that tangled with the far superior American forces. Captain Phillips is an underdog story of epic proportions where the underdogs never stand a chance.
What did you think of Captain Phillips?
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