Based on the true story of the first successful breach of an American ship by pirates in nearly 200 years, Captain Phillips will hijack your pulse and hold your attention hostage for two solid, nail-biting hours. SEE IT.
Director Paul Greengrass has a particular skill. His films sit at the intersection of art house indulgence, mainstream entertainment, and historical documentary. Watching one of his films reminds you, very quickly, of those ‘true crime TV’ reenactments, except these reenactments seems as real as real life. However it came about, Greengrass’s direction of this film is surely owes creidt to his masterful handling of the September 11th historical drama, United 93. And while directing The Bourne Supremacy no doubt helped, it was his 2002 work, Bloody Sunday, that assured his helming of United. (No doubt, his screenwriting credits on those two films helped as well). If you haven’t seen Bloody Sunday, rent it.
It’s hard to explain what makes his films so compelling. To reduce it to it’s most basic explanation: you feel as if you’re there in the moment, watching events unfold. This is so much more difficult than would think. To phrase it a bit more colorfully, it’s as if you’re watching crystal-clear reality.
One side-note on the experience: Captian Phillips was filmed on a real cargo ship, on the ocean, and the cameras are in continuous motion with the waves. If you’re prone to motion sickness, bring Dramamine. I am, but didn’t, and so for the first 45 minutes of the film, found myself continuously hoping for a dull moment so I could step out for a few minutes to recover. There was never a dull moment, but thankfully, I recovered.
It’s hard to imagine a days long stand-off could be so tense. Again, credit to Greengrass. Early on, there’s a particularly impressive chase scene. Yes, for realz, a cargo ship chase scene – and it’s white-knuckle tense every second of the way. Additional credit goes to Hanks as Captain Phillips. So often with A-list actors, the characters pale compared to our familiarity with the person portraying them. Hanks excels above others like Tom Cruise or George Clooney because, much like in Cast Away, we see more of the character, less of the actor. Further appreciation belongs to the Somali actors portraying the hijackers. How easy would it be for them to be overwhelmed standing next to “the” Tom Hanks? They’re up for it, and bring the heat from their first moments on screen. Finally, additional credit to Greengrass. One of the overriding themes throughout his films is Greengrass’s willingness to show the complexity of motivation and thought on all sides, and the moral ambiguity of the situation. He never vilifies the hijackers, and it makes the dynamic exponentially more complex. And if you’ve followed the news recently, you’ll recognize many elements of the ship’s crews’ lawsuit are acknowledged within the film as well. As a viewer, combined with the current news stories, it’s easy to see how all sides agree on exactly what happened, yet from completely different points of view. The result, when the movie ends, is not one of elation or thrill at our protagonists success. Instead, you’ll feel as if you’ve been on an out of control rollercoaster ride, or riot police melee, or high seas hijacking – and lived to tell about it.
Captain Phillips follows on the heels of the Danish thriller Kapringen (A Hijacking), which also depicts recent, real-life cargo ship hijackings by Somali pirates. Kapringen was filmed on the rented MV Rosen, itself victim to a hijacking in 2007, using a real life ship’s crew, also recently victims of a hijacking, with real weapons seized by Kenyan authorities from real-life captured Somali pirates – all on a shoestring budget of just $2 million. Though more fictionalized, Kapringen depicts the same experiences, with the same gripping tension as in Captain Phillips, with perhaps are heavier emphasis on negotiations and the psychological effects of long captivity. Ironically, the Rozen, like the Albama in Captain Phillips, and like many other cargo vessels attacked, were all carrying food aid to war-torn Somalia when pirates struck.
Kapringen director Tobias Lindholm also helmed this year’s The Hunt, starring Hannibal’s Mads Mikklesen, and 2011’s prison drama R. Lindholm’s work features gritty realism, and taut drama. He’s one to watch, as he’s sure to follow other current Danish filmmakers making their way onto to the international stage, including Lars Von Trier, Niels Arden Oplev (Dragon Tattoo, CBS’s Under the Dome, Nicholas Winding Refn (Pusher, Drive), and Soren Sveistrup (AMC’s The Killing).
Rather then explain so many details of what went into making Captin Phillips, or reveal any spoilers and lessen your experience, listen to these interviews with some of the principles. And then checkout the Kapringen trailer below:
Tom Hanks on Greengrass’ filming techniques:
Faysal Ahmed, on portraying a Somali pirate, and working with Tom Hanks:
Greengrass on filming historical dramas:
Captain Phillips, the experience, is copyright 2013 by Sony Picutres.
Kapringen (A Hijacking):
PS: I know the headline’s embedded reference is very obscure. That just makes me love it more. -JM