I was fortunate enough yesterday to be able to screen Tom Hanks‘ Captain Phillips. Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93), Captain Phillips tells the story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, in which a cargo vessel was taken by Somali pirates. It was the first act of piracy against a ship flying an American flag since the 18th Century. Hanks plays the Alabama‘s captain, who was taken hostage by the pirates in the Alabama’s lifeboat leading to a confrontation with US Navy Special Forces.
The screening I attended was extremely special, and I was honored to be a guest, because it was a private screening for the employees of Maersk who work at their US headquarters (Maersk is a Danish-owned company) many of whom know the crew of the Alabama and were working during the 2009 crisis. I almost wanted to watch the crowd as much as I did the movie. What a surreal thing to have happen in the first place, and then to be watching a movie about your work; your colleagues. Going into the screening, I can tell you a lot of them were skeptical about the “Hollywoodization” of the hijacking
Captain Phillips focuses, with the exception of an extremely brief introductory period that shows Phillips preparing at home in Vermont and the hijackers jockeying for position on the attack boats in Somalia, on the event itself. Paul Greengrass is known for taking a single camera, documentary-style approach to his films be they fictional (Bourne Supremacy) or based on events (United 93). Greengrass is an outstanding director, keeping the pacing of the film kinetic. The Somali hijackers are not presented as cookie cutter villains, but they are also not romanticized or sympathetic (which-given the room I was in-I was glad they didn’t try).
The pirates demonstrated (both in the movie and by all accounts I’ve read) a complete misapprehension and dimwitted thuggishness in response to the ability of the Alabama’s crew to frustrate their early attempts to board and to trick and mislead them through the ship they knew so well while maintaining order on a ship armed with nothing more than fire hoses and a few flares. As the situation escalates to the pirates holding Phillips hostage in a tiny life boat, the claustrophobic atmosphere kindles their increasingly frantic realization of the amount of force that had been brought to bear against them. It’s one thing to demand tens of millions when you’re holding a gun on unarmed men; the same demand starts to ring a bit hollow when several ships worth of exceedingly armed men are listening to that same demand.
Greengrass chooses an almost sterile approach to chronicling the stand-off. There’s no thumping, adrenaline pumping score. No flashy shots or dialogue clearly manufactured by a screenwriter. His approach to film in these events as he has said in multiple interviews and as the Maersk rep remarked to the audience before the film, is not journalism. He wants to convey to the audience the tone, the feelings and the atmosphere of the event, but he’s still making a movie. This is admirable and when the perfect balance is struck (United 93) it can be devastatingly effective. He has, though, become increasingly distant in his direction leading to efforts (Green Zone) that feel more like a toneless documentary than a movie. He was flirting with that line again with Captain Phillips and what pulls the movie along and keeps Greengrass from sabotaging his own efforts is Tom Hanks.
Tom Hanks has frustrated the living daylights out of me for nearly a decade in his choice of projects. For every Charlie Wilson’s War, there’s Larry Crowne and the Robert Langdon gobbledygook. Then last year’s Cloud Atlas, which we’d need a separate post to contain my rant, pretty much had me given up on him altogether. He is, in my mind, the most talented actor and the most versatile actor of his generation. This used to show up in his film choices, resulting in some of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Which Tom Hanks was in Captain Phillips? I am relieved to say, the real Tom Hanks showed up for work and turned in a riveting and nuanced performance as Phillips. His professionalism, control and insight on the Alabama probably saved this lives of his crew (not to diminish any of their efforts as well). The struggle with the pirates in the lifeboat both mental and physical is portrayed with a level of masterful craft so that when the situation ends and Phillips finally releases that control; the emotion pouring forth is so genuine and so moving…it’s a scene to put in his portfolio with the best of his career.
The movie was not quite the home run I wanted and for that I blame Greengrass for erring too far on the side of the documentarian, however it is an outstanding film with a fantastic performance from Hanks that is not to be missed. As far as the reaction from the screening, I heard nothing but praise from the Maersk employees. Even those who had worked the crisis four years ago were struck by aspects of the experience that had never occurred to them, which is probably the ultimate compliment Greengrass would wish to receive. Captain Phillips opens nationwide, this Friday, October 11th.