Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray (screenplay), Richard Phillips (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Faysal Ahmed
The final scenes in Captain Phillips are some of the most disturbing and haunting of the year. They also somewhat erase the good guy/bad guy mentality and replace it with raw humanity. (Spoiler ahead) They involve Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) screaming his head off while covered in the blood of recently-killed Somali pirates who were holding him hostage. It is a raw portrayal of trauma, and it resonates more than anything else in this taut if mostly unsubstantial movie.
Like Gravity, Paul Greengrass’ latest film operates on the built-in history audiences have with its Hollywood star. Hanks doesn’t disappear into the title character as much as he uses his image to enhance the terror of the situation. It’s the actor we are meant to see struggle with a pirate raid on his cargo ship while traveling off the African coast. Those last scenes in particular are crucial reminders of that.
That isn’t to say that Greengrass rests on his laurels because he has one of the most famous stars in the world in his movie. He films Captain Phillips as if it were a documentary, as if the source material (written by the actual captain and adapted by Billy Ray) were an absolute truth. It is an exhilarating, immersive approach to the material, but also flawed. Richard Phillips obviously has a very biased account of these actions, and though the movie attempts to offer slight sympathy to the pirates, Phillips’ crew largely comes off as a mindless herd that would be nothing without their captain.
Once Phillips is taken hostage in the claustrophobic confines of a lifeboat, this ceases to be an issue. The captain of the Somali pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), becomes less an antagonist than he does a man trapped by a life’s worth of bad options. In a crucial scene, Phillips ask him why he has to steal and loot, that there must be some other choice in life. “Maybe in America,” he replies.
The scenes inside that lifeboat are truly riveting. If the movie had stayed pinned inside that action and not over-indulged the Navy officers attempting to rescue Phillips, it would have been much stronger. Thankfully the tactical efficiency of the military is offset by moments of moral ambiguity, much like Zero Dark Thirty.
I wish the movie had spent more time with Muse at the end, because although it makes its point by showing officers coldly tell him “your friends are all dead,” it spends much more time with Phillips, who is so traumatized that he can’t even form a coherent sentence. This is another example of the movie’s flawed, if riveting, subjectivity. Greengrass and Ray attempt to rise above it in those final scenes, but they partially fall prey to star power, which will likely be the biggest audience (and Oscar) draw to their movie.