Regular readers doubtless know about my trips to the movies with my comic book loving brother. These normally end in what I refer to as my “Marxist movie reviews.” These are reviews of films as they function as government propaganda. See, for example, Marvel’s The Despots. But yesterday, I had a different experience. I took my father to see Captain Phillips, at our cheap Third Street Cinema. I was actually more interested in seeing the other Tom Hanks film, Saving Mr Banks. But dad wasn’t that keen to go to the movies, so I figured Captain Phillips was a better choice.
The film is directed by Paul Greengrass or, as I have come to think of him, the handheld Tony Scott. And it is entirely what I’m come to expect from Greengrass: a big budget film for intelligent people that will appeal to idiots as well. In fact, I think Captain Phillips is the Iliad of the American empire. It provides an excellent illustration of how men on both sides of a conflict are supposed to act. Phillips, of course, is stoic while trying to safeguard his crew and eventually even the leader of the pirates, Abduwali Muse, and its youngest member. For his part, Muse does his best in a situation he does not like—never forgetting his duty to his employer and by extension the safety of his community.
There is much to like about the film. In particular, I appreciated that the US Navy was mostly not humanized. It presented it as the huge killing machine that it is. Once it is on the case, all hope is lost for the pirates. Another important aspect of the film is that Phillips is not really cast as a hero. A good comparison is John McClane in the first half of Die Hard, where all he is trying to do is get the police to notice the hostage situation. Phillips is trying to make the best of a bad situation. The role has a bit too much of the star hero, but it is surprisingly limited. And at the end, after he is safe, Phillips breaks down. So I liked all of that.
Of course, by necessity, the film is propagandistic. In the end, the Navy comes to the rescue, just like the cavalry did in bad westerns of old. And ultimately, most people will see the film as the bad pirates against the good merchant marines. The film does do a good job of showing that the pirates are also victims in this. In the end, three of them die, and nothing happens to the warlord behind it. In addition, nothing happens to those in the commercial fishing industry who destroyed the pirates’ village’s fish population. In fact, there is a great moment in the film where Phillips tells Muse that there has to be an alternative besides fishing and kidnapping. Muse responds, “Maybe in America.” But it’s still a bit subtle. For example, the actual pirates were all between the ages of 16 and 19. The film makes note of the fact that the youngest is 16, but this is made out to be different from the others. Muse was only 18, but Barkhad Abdi, who brilliantly plays him in the movie, is 28.
That’s all minor and beside the point. It isn’t the filmmakers’ fault that most people who go to see the film will have an extremely biased perspective and miss the subtleties. The fact remains that the film is largely respectful to its characters. In the end, I think the film raises important issues about equality and fairness. And it drops these issues in your lap and runs away. No one involved in this movie wants to deal with these implications. So they wrap it in an exciting thriller and figure their job is done. And they are right. But the rest of us ought to think about why we live in such an unfair world where it is just dumb luck whether you are killed at 18 because of a botched kidnapping or make millions off the hedge fund daddy gave you the money to start.
Something must be said about Paul Greengrass’ overuse of the handheld camera. I know that he is going for a cinema verite feel. And it often works, and worked the best I’ve ever seen in this film. But during non-dramatic scenes such as the car ride to the airport, it doesn’t make it feel real. The camera just calls attention to itself. That’s also the case when a beautiful helicopter shot interrupts the jitter-fest. And the camera man is clearly moving the camera more than he has to. Most camera operators can shoot scenes handheld without most observers even realizing it. So I think that Greengrass is being awfully pretentious a lot of the time. And then there is the over-cutting. It’s like he thinks that the film would die if there wasn’t a cut every three second.
That’s all meta criticism that doesn’t matter all that much. What is a bigger issue is that the film does kind of die once the pirates take Phillips hostage on the lifeboat. Much of the dynamism of the plot dies here. What’s more, most of the characters lose their interest. There are still many interesting movements like the “Maybe in America” line. But large chunks of time are taken up with all the Navy maneuvers. Given that it is based fairly closely on a real life story, this is understandable. But it was not necessary to spend so much time on kidnapping part of the story. I think the film could easily be cut down by a half hour.
Given all of this, it is still unlikely that you will see a better big budget thriller in the next several years. It is extremely engaging, the characters are well rendered, and its theme is important. If Hollywood made more films like this, we might become a better nation.