Captain Phillips finds depth in human detail

The differing depictions of ‘captaincy’ play key roles in the film. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

This article contains spoilers.

Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips advertises itself as little more than a tense, claustrophobic thriller – a dramatic re-telling of the 2009 incident in which Somali pirates hijacked a US freighter, held hostage its captain (played here by Tom Hanks) and, after a standoff with the US Navy, were killed by SEAL snipers.

It’s billed as a realistic “true-to-life” thriller, along the lines of Greengrass’s 2006 United 93, which told a story of 9/11 with astonishing fidelity to events. So it wouldn’t feel too ungenerous to imagine that Captain Phillips should amount to nothing much more than an exciting, but in the end skin-deep, dramatisation of events, with all of the “movie of the week” connotations that “dramatisation” carries with it.

Yet it’s nominated for six Academy Awards, among them Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (the Somali-born Barkhad Abdi, on debut). Whatever else is appealing or repugnant about the Oscars, it seems worth noting here they make no attempt to actually describe the achievements they celebrate.

Instead, the opening of the envelope (when announcing nominees and winners) sees only a flat declaration of decreed status: “Best” picture, or “Best” sound mixing, or “Best” adapted screenplay.

So what is being celebrated in Greengrass’ movie? Are the Oscars finally loosening their ties, putting their hands together for the kind of unbecoming but brilliantly realised work that is often overshadowed by more ostentatious displays of importance and prestige.

(What famed critic Manny Farber celebrated as “termite art”, which he opposed to “white elephant art”.)

Barkhad Adbi in Captain Phillips. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

We can find one answer in the way Captain Phillips could be seen to exploit classic “Oscar bait” material: contemporary, real-life issues, in this case the problems of economic globalisation and inequality. Historically, such hot-button issues have found their way into numerous “social problem” or “message” films, often commended for their good-hearted forays into uncomfortable areas.

(These movies can be more or less well realised: The Insider, or Crash.)

When Phillips and his wife (played by Catherine Keener) share fears for their son’s future in an unstable globalised economy, in which being American and middle-class is no longer a guarantee of much, the film threatens to head in this “baited” direction. The conversation, staged during the couple’s highway drive to the airport, comes across as blunt and forced, the actors unable to do much more than perform as mouthpieces for pat sound bites.

This simple dialogue serves to diminish the choice of setting: changing lanes becomes an obvious and shallow metaphor for risk and uncertainty in a high-speed world. The scene highlights well the clumsiness of film as a medium for these kinds of ideas, and warns of the risks that attend determining the movie’s meaning along such lines.

Tom Hanks stars in Captain Phillips. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

What distinguishes Captain Phillips, in a way familiar from but not exhausted by Greengrass’s other work, is the movie’s respect for the potential depth of fascination to be found in documentary detail, and the camera’s simple capacity to plumb that depth by attending to it.

We’re alerted to this very early, when Phillips is first introduced to us not through any moments of drama, but simply through the way he inhabits his home office prior to departing for a voyage, as he checks over a multitude of details. Later, the pirate attack is pleasantly surprising for the way it prepares us for a short spike of urgent thrill, only to suspend matters in a different way by drawing them out.

Paul Greengrass at the Captain Phillips premiere. s_bukley /

Greengrass refuses to elide the potential for ordinariness in even such a dangerous scenario. He shows how the first attackers gradually fail in the face of practical problems (inadequate outboard motors), and has the second attempt unfold as a slow repeat of the first.

It becomes less a thriller sequence and more a matter of inevitability, as steps of procedure are progressively observed and tested. Greengrass reveals that he’s less interested in milking the scenario’s potential for theatrical showmanship and more concerned with the process of how these men attack and defend a freighter, and, importantly, with how they conduct themselves while doing so.

It’s in this way that performances provide the human centrepieces that allow Greengrass’s details to have their grip, one that tightens to become powerfully moving as the dreaded climax approaches. Hanks and his counterpart, Barkhad Abdia, as the ambitious young pirate leader, Abduwali Muse, are both deeply compelling.

(It is interesting to consider that Hanks was not nominated in his “leading” role; the issue of supporting and leading roles is a topic of the film – captured in Abdia’s declaration to the Hollywood star that “I am the captain now” – and then complicated by the different modes of captaincy the film presents across a range of characters.)

Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahat Ali play the four Somali pirates who hijacked the MV Maersk Alabama in April 2009. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Abdia is a fearsome presence, his spindly frame nicely embodying not only his basic material malnourishment but also his underfed spiritual desire for everything his imagination of the United States and its bounty promises. Muse is in one sense depicted as a ruthlessly ambitious and violent young man, and so Abdia (especially given his inexperience as an actor) does well not to mishandle his performance by overstressing these aspects, which might turn Muse into a gross caricature of savage thuggery.

This is especially a risk given the movie’s subject matter of global inequality, and its unavoidable entanglements with cultural confrontation and otherness in the African context.

Instead, we are treated to a performance of admirable finesse, which pivots on the gradual extinguishing of Muse’s/ Abdia’s eyes. Their initially violent fire (cooled by cockiness), and their demand for adult recognition, are slowly replaced by a childlike, naïve terror at witnessing an untenable nightmare unfold. The only hope that flickers in his gaze near the end is lit by his soon-to-be-snuffed faith in the United States as a place that can not only provide him with a way out of his impasse, but also with a world better than the one he’s in now.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Given that Muse is eventually consumed by forces that are beyond him, it’s fitting that Greengrass depicts the details of pirate and Naval operations in ways that discover significant relationships of scale.

Throughout the movie, matters that seem large and looming on the screen in one moment are in the next dwarfed by a wider, larger context, such as when the US Navy destroyer announces itself (to the characters and to us) in a terrible burst of light and noise, as if the American men and ships outside the Somalis’ tiny lifeboat were in possession of some sublime power.

The juxtaposition of scales might weaken the importance of things that are small, but Greengrass sustains a dedicated interest in the tightening weave of his characters’ various bonds of closeness and distance, so that they are not diminished for us, but we are instead reminded of the humanity at the centre of a stage upon which wheels turn beyond human scale.

In the movie’s final scene, distance and intimacy interact not on the stage of military manoeuvring, but of different ways of human being, as a Navy nurse quietly examines the bloodied and shocked Phillips, in a cool but caring tone that seems to coax from him a crumbling collapse into infantile helplessness.

In an extraordinary and utterly moving display of acting, Hanks evokes the full depth of crisis his character meets as he confronts what it means to be soaked in someone else’s blood, without being able to know whose it is, or how it got there.

See further Oscars 2014 coverage on The Conversation.