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Captain Phillips – Paul Greengrass: Might is right….but…..


The real Captain Phillips



Captain Phillips – Paul Greengrass

Claustrophobic, tense, exciting, edge-of-the seat suspense. As you would expect of the Director of United 93 and the best two films in the Bourne franchise, Captain Phillips is brilliantly edited to give a sense of movement and pace one wouldn’t have thought possible confined on board a container ship heading for the Horn of Africa through the piratical political gauntlet that the seas off Somalia have become.

Hanks if of course utterly dependable as the undemonstrative, quietly authoritative, real life Captain Phillips, whose ship Maersk Alabama was captured by Somali pirates in 2009. Hanks must be the most instinctively likable, dull actor working today. Here he is perfectly cast as the sane, buttoned-up captain at the centre of the chaotic politics of modern terrorism to which Greengrass returns after his equally strong United 93 – the 9/11 hijacking that didn’t reach its target. Hanks’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get acting style makes him the calm epicentre of the almost bizarre reality of of half a dozen ex-fishermen in fragile motorized skiffs, driven by necessity and threats from Somali warlords, armed only with small arms, to ‘attack’ a gigantic merchant ship in the middle of the ocean. One is struck by this dramatisation of an actual event with exactly the same thought as one is with the real news items of similar hi-jackings – how is this possible?

Basing a work of popular art on a real story is a mixed blessing. The actor can of course, with a largely unknown figure like Captain Phillips, get away with being, as here, ‘Tom Hanks’ and fortunately doesn’t have to impersonate or emulate the real person. This necessity often undermines or even destroys dramatized biopics etc of well-known celebs and politicians for example.

The real life basis may seem to add an aura of verisimilitude to proceedings. But this can be problematic: after all it can’t be the case that we believe any old actor or an unconvincing account of a dramatic event just because there is a real person and actual events being portrayed. Some art is required, to invest factual accuracy with dramatic conviction: a different kind of truth; and harder to achieve. This appears to work much better with Captain Phillips than for example the other film ‘based on a true story’ currently doing the rounds – The Fifth Estate about Wikileaks and the enigmatic Julian Assange. There are many reasons for this but essentially Hank’s Phillips is in the film what the real Phillips was in real life – a pawn caught up in a macabre, at times deadly game of chess. We don’t need to know much about pawns, just where they fit on the board, how they can move, and their rigorously defined contribution to the ‘game’.

It is here that one begins to feel uneasy about the subtext of Greengrass’s movie. Following what I take to be the actual sequence of events, defines and limits the dramatic impact of about the last third of the movie which takes place on a lifeboat containing the pirates and Phillips who they have taken hostage. As the combined might of the US Navy, Special Forces, Helicopters etc bear down upon this tiny cork of a boat bobbing about on the ocean, the sense of uncertainty that has maintained the tension and suspense thus far is inevitably dissipated. We know it didn’t end in everyone’s death; another downside of the real event basis, and action-wise the confines of the lifeboat narrows possibilities enormously. It is here that weaknesses in the first half of the movie begin to emerge; for despite having some genuine Somali exiles in the pirates’ roles Greengrass doesn’t really engage us with them when the circumstances of their having just taken over the ship would have made this possible. He settles for a sense of menace and unpredictability in the pirates to generate a largely event-driven dramatic arc.

In this respect Captain Phillips is far less interesting and dramtically ‘layered’ than say the Danish film released earlier this year A Highjacking (Tobias Lindholm). A Danish ship is also hijacked by Somali pirates and held for ransom. Lindholm opens out his story to explore the dramtic and moral conflicts of Corporate attitudes, treatment of anxious relatives, and a far more interesting, nuanced view of the intricacies of negotiations with the pirates. In this respect it is telling that in the Danish film the pirates are far more organised, sophisticated and ‘good’ at what they do. Characters are developed who become part of the deadly game of wits and balance of risk and reward. The pirates in Captain Phillips for all the actors’ screen presence (especially Barkhad Abdi as Muse) remain one-dimensional, disorganised and without any real sense of leadership. The Danish perspective is more convincing and perhaps truer to the intractability of the problem. If all hijackings were as random and half-assed as shown in Captain Phillips, it is hard to believe the problem would have lasted for so long and become so difficult to resolve.

For all its carefully manufactured excitement therefore, Captain Phillips gradually drifts, under the force of its own need for dramatic force, into something perilously close to a typically Hollywood action movie. This is especially true when the US Navy come to the rescue with a denouement straight out of the Hollywood blockbuster handbook – with as ever the eventual triumph of guns and firepower; and the characteristically American sense of that is not only how it was, but how it should be.

We are obviously invited to applaud Captain Phillips for his courage and fortitude. And aye to that. But, and it is a big but: it is hard not to feel a bit queasy at the sight half a dozen, emaciated, manipulated ex-fishermen, driven by desperation and necessity, being inevitably overwhelmed by the grotesque over-kill, literally, of the full might of the American Navy. Hollywood certainly, and perhaps the more bellicose sections of today’s polarised American society, seem to have become comfortably adulatory of an American ‘way of war’ that involves total technological supremacy, massive superiority in numbers and a disturbing disproportion in the deaths and casualty figures between the combatants.

On a day when the latest authoritative, figure of deaths in Iraq attributable directly or indirectly to the Allied invasion has been updated to nearly half a million; the gung-ho, super-power ‘triumph’ of two massive warships, several helicopters and hundreds of men over 5 terrified, skinny Somalians armed with rifles, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. However wrong and even ruthless is the piracy and the brutality the real pirates can display.

The politically sensitive American way-of-war is rapidly approaching maximum death to the enemy with zero loss. The controversial use of drones achieves precisely this. The logical extension of this idea is a totally robotic army fighting proxy wars against real human beings with all the de-humanisation that horrific prospect entails.

A long way from Captain Phillips perhaps but the disturbing assumptions are there. Go and see it as pure Hollywood entertainment. But if you want to feel engaged in the complexity of the problem and the conflicting demands and challenges it presents to brave and weak; honourable and venal men and women; caught up in a tragedy not of their own making – get A Hijacking out on DVD. It doesn’t of course have Tom Hanks: but then whether that’s an advantage or not depends on your point of view.

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