By most measure, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity seems to have sucked in all the critical attention over the weekend, coming out as the top grossing movie and receiving oodles of praise for its low orbit odyssey and butt-clenching tension. Not that I would disagree, the movie rightly deserves its praise, but it’s unfortunate that the sweeping Sauronic eye of the internet media would pass over Paul Greenglass’s latest, Captain Philips (if these two top grossers hooked up, the lovechild would probably look something like Apollo 13). There were a few smattering of words written about the REAL taking of the Maersk Alabama, Barkhad Abdi’s premier performance, and the crew’s alternate set of facts about that fateful day, but in many respects it has already come and gone, another notch Tom Hanks’ lifetime achievement belt. Unfortunate, I say, because while Captain Philips so desperately wants to chart a straight course into feel good survival land, it can’t help but be boarded by the slants and distortions of its own contemporary vision.
The movie really comes in two halves. There’s the first half on the container ship, and the second in the lifeboat. The two pieces are comparably and almost literally night and day, the conceptions of tension and danger posed in the first completely upend with the arrival of the military in the second. We are introduced to Rich Philips, portrayed by Tom Hanks, as a loving family man who is a bit of a hardass when he hits the bridge. He is the captain, but Philips’ apathy seems to extend beyond simple get-back-to-work’s and ignoring crew concerns. The real life Philips is known as “sullen and self-righteous” and admitted to have read at least seven e-mails warning about pirate activity and advising ships to sail 600 miles off Somali coast, before sailing his ship some 235 miles off. In the film, a scene of Hanks flitting over similar emails seems like simple foreshadowing catching the captain unawares, but in this context it speaks to a more sinister ignorance. When his crew pushed back against sailing through pirate infested waters, as one actually did in reality, his main concern is for time and cargo, not the lives of his crew. In fact, the movie expressly handwaves a lot of the fuck-ups from Philips experienced by the crew in this early stage, such as turning the original fire drill into a security drill, and tip-toeing over Philips insistence that they continue practicing with lifeboats as pirates quickly approached. Philips’ negligence is forgotten once they’re boarded and Greenglass makes Philips into the hero the film needs. Much of the self-sacrifice present is conflated, empty, like a big puffy calzone, The crew vanish into the ship and become an extension of it, no agency unto themselves except to flick switches and hand over the pirate leader, never to be seen from then on.
The movie drags over this bit, with Philips and the pirates contained to the lifeboat and a full three United States navy vessels soon following close behind. It’s here that image of the pirates, presented as impulsive, demanding, and dangerous, is slowly torn apart as they flounder under pressure. The special forces unit who parachutes in are not greeted with any sort of sense of rising hope or righteousness, but are slipped in silently and shrouded in darkness, their presence ominous and working towards only one possible resolution. There is no attempt at negotiation or de-escalating the situation, only bringing it under control and to a quick and sudden end. They’re able to deceive the pirate leader Muse into leaving the lifeboat, but it is not the same feeling of plucky trickery you get from films like Argo or the Great Escape lets say, but something menacing and underhanded that works on Muse’s fear and youthful naivety. The second half puts the system on display, a boa constrictor squeezing so slowly there’s never a chance to fight at all. Once the three ships loom in formation on the lifeboat and hook it onto their reel, they are in complete control, the tension of the film shifting from the pirates to the distant spotlights and snipers readying themselves on deck, peering through nightvision scopes. Philips expresses the nihilism of their situation as he pleads with the pirates, ensuring them that the navy won’t let them win. He knows even his life potentially hangs in the balance before his so-called rescuers. When it’s all over Philips is left shell-shocked and shaking, dumbfounded before the demands of the orderly nurse. Is there any loss felt, any truth laid bare before him in those moments before he finally corrects himself and stammers his own name? We’re left doubtful. How could there be? The good guys won.
It may be useful to think of the subversive quality of Captain Philips in the context of the times its reflecting. It helps if we compare this movie to one of Greenglass’ rare non-Matt Damon thrillers, United 93, another lesson on self-sacrifice and messing with America. The films can be seen as reflections of their respective times, with United 93 closer to a post-9/11 need for catharsis and mourning, while Captain Philips makes its bed with a more contemporary anti-terrorist state that responds to violence with overwhelming force. Both films are caught in the mythology of their event, whether its the American heroism of “Let’s Roll” in United 93 or being the first successful pirate seizure of an American vessel since the 19th c. in Captain Philips. There’s always more room in the museum for some good ol’ h-oorah, even if it was just plinking off a couple of teenagers. The attitudes towards United 93‘s hijackers is completely different however. It would be unthinkable to humanize one of the 9/11 hijackers, yet the story of Muse and his friends don’t present as much threat and the piracy nerve isn’t as exposed. Zero Dark Thirty is another film marred by its contemporary vision of “our side”, one that sparked much more debate over its level of access to secrets and use of torture. It, like Captain Philips, looks to relay real events but ultimately gets caught up in all the ugly stuff we tend to do. The controversy here is not so much who we tortured, but that “we” torture, and that it might otherwise poison an audience that should be empathizing and rooting for “us”.
When I say subversive I don’t mean it is expressly out to get any sort of Man, or that it leads a clarion call for us to all join the ranks of pirates and overthrow global shipping lanes. Instead, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it ends up painting a critical picture of those it pushes us to root for. Paul Greenglass sets up the early part of the film to have us understand the piracy situation and what drives people like Muse into it:
One of his quotes, he said [my character] was just a simple man that was in a situation that was bigger than him. Because this piracy thing is basically international organized crime. The people that actually benefit out of it are not even in Somalia; they’re somewhere in Europe or America or some other country. And it’s a big corporation. And the people that actually take the risk don’t even take much.
We are supposed to think Philips and the pirates are both caught in the same situation, part of a larger system they cannot control and which pushes them together in violent confrontation; Philips at the behest of Maesrk, Muse under Garaad. But in the end, one side has to choose their predicament, the other cannot. One side comes back for their man while the other turns into radio static. Who then is this a tragedy for? Where should the empathy of the audience lie? One could say that Greenglass is simply attempting to translate history to the screen, to relay an event and all its uneven sides the best way he can in under two hours. But in this case it is a story where Greenglass has decided to stick to and expand on the facts when it comes to one side (the pirates), while distorting and twisting the shape of the other for narrative purposes (Philips). Even then, despite his best efforts to create someone we can root for, the only thing left dehumanized and without empathy is us. Shame about those pirates though, should never have been there to begin with.