CULTURE OCTOBER 10, 2013
Paul Greengrass could make the most mundane human activity—slouching in a work cubicle, napping in a hammock—feel dramatic. In the opening scene of the English director's latest frenetic film, Captain Phillips, we find the titular hero, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), leaning intently over a desk in his Underhill, Vermont, home—on March 28, 2009, to be exact. Phillips rifles through documents, clicks around his computer, locates his work badge, and checks his watch. All the while, strings skitter over a steady, ominous electronic beat, and the camera—cutting back and forth, zooming in and out—behaves like a cokehead who can’t sit still. It is clear, contrary to what is literally occurring in this country house, that something of import is happening here.
Or about to happen, anyway. Driving to the airport with his wife, Phillips talks vaguely—and with one of the more egregious Boston accents in film history—about how “ya gotta be a suhvivah” in this business. No need to wonder what business that is, because we all followed the drama in the spring of 2009 (or, at least, saw the film’s trailer). Phillips is the real-life cargo-ship captain who was helming the Maersk Alabama when it was attacked and held for ransom by Somali pirates; he was taken hostage in a lifeboat and rescued five days later by U.S. Navy SEALs. (If you think this warranted a spoiler alert, shame on you.) In the movie version of events, while Phillips arrives at port in Oman and takes stock of the Alabama’s weak security (the pirate gates are shown unlocked), a Somali village is making preparations of its own. Residents are roused from their midday stupor by armed men in jeeps—the pirate bosses’ middlemen, presumably—who shout orders to the villagers to ready the boats. The resistance to the order (a villager complains that he went pirating last week, and is promptly reminded that this is a new week) is not nearly as half-hearted as the moment itself: Greengrass’s bald attempt to inspire a flicker of sympathy. Seconds later, we’re back to khat-chewing men shouting at khat-chewing men, a wild-eyed chaos filmed by, I can only assume, a similarly high-strung cameraman.
This is not a lament about the hand-held camera technique, which has been around for a century and has been de rigueur—especially for well-funded filmmakers with artistic aspirations—since the turn of the century. David O. Russell (Three Kings), Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams) are all adept at the technique, but Greengrass has been the most consistent and eager—not to mention monetarily successful—hand-held enthusiast of the past decade: Bloody Sunday (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), United 93 (2006), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), The Green Zone (2010), and now Captain Phillips all share the same intense camerawork. For better or worse, this is Greengrass’ narrative voice, and he’s not going to change it—nor should he—simply because lesser filmmakers have begun aping him. It’s a credit to him, in fact, that his voice remains singular, in spite of his peers and imitators. A Greengrass film is still very much a Greengrass film.
This is not to say that all Greengrass films are made the same. There are still matters of plot and dialogue to reckon with, and it’s the latter where Captain Phillips disappoints. Phillips’ accent alone threatens to sink this ship (sorry) early in the film, when one of the pirate boats pulls alongside the hull and hooks a ladder onto Alabama’s deck. “They gaht tha laddah,” Phillips says, then instructs a crewman, “Stahboahd thirty dahgrees!” The accent is awful enough to make you wish Matt Damon had served as Hanks’ voice coach (or, rather, to wish Hanks hadn’t bothered with an accent at all).1 But the plot is a good one, and better yet, it’s true. As with United 93, the factual material makes Greengrass’s job both easier and harder. On the one hand, real-life storylines—especially those featuring famous tales of American heroism—are inherently dramatic. Having only read about Phillips’s ordeal or the struggle aboard United 93, we crave any approximation of what only a few people witnessed firsthand. On the other hand, we know how the story ends, which makes it that much harder to build suspense. Greengrass does so by creating, through sound and cinematography, a permanent state of immediacy. It’s moviemaking as wire-to-wire sprint—or, being less generous, moviemaking for the modern teenagers’ attention span, as if Greengrass fears losing his audience if he lets up for even a moment.
This sounds more exhausting on the page than it is in practice, and that’s precisely why Captain Phillips is first-rate entertainment. The drug-addled camera and ominous music might seem excessive in Phillips’ home office, but like a noisy refrigerator or odd smell, the body learns to ignore what’s jarring at first. Captain Phillips, like all of Greengrass’s films, is an immersive experience: My eyes became one with the camera, and the soundtrack became background music. I might have had misgivings about Hanks’ accent or the stilted officialese, and I might have cringed at the lazy humanization of secondary characters.2 But those were fleeting moments in a barrage of shouting and sweating and crying and swearing and scowling and shooting. It is a film critic’s worst nightmare, really: a film with many flaws that doesn’t grant a moment to consider said flaws. And before this critic knew it, all of my nails were a quarter-inch shorter, the camera was rising from the sea and panning out to the horizon, strings were swelling, and this 134-minute film was over in a flash.