Paul Greengrass doesn’t make movies like other directors. His films – whether mainstream action capers like his Bourne movies or political-baiting ground-level actioners like United 93 or Bloody Sunday – are all possessed of an immediate, handheld style that critics often refer to as “steely.” It’s tempting to refer to his style as having no style whatsoever. He’s just going to charge in headfirst, documenting rather than commenting. In a way, this has allowed Greengrass to tackle touchy political or topical material without succumbing to partisanship.
The touchy topic he covers in Captain Phillips is the true story of Richard Phillips, an American ship captain who was abducted by Somalian pirates. His ship was the first American ship to be taken by pirates in centuries. Greengrass’ approach was purely procedural. We get to see Phillips (Tom Hanks) as the no-nonsense leader, sticking to the book, and trying to use his wits to outrun, evade, and eventually just survive in the face of actual piracy. We also spend time with the Somalian Muse (Barkhed Abdi), the skeletal criminal in charge of the situation, and the process he goes through. We even get to see his situation at home, and why piracy is perhaps one of the only viable career options for him.
Captain Phillips is a cold movie. This is about a battle of wits and a clash of personalities (Phillips and Muse have several conversations about piracy), but the personalities are perhaps not bigger than the situation. Like most action films, we only see the hero in a position of steely determination, reacting to extreme situations. Unlike most action films, this is a straightforwardly realistic and unapologetically metallic telling. This turns what could have been a bold and risky melodramatic adventure film into the rough crime that it actually is.
One of the talents of a good biographer is to wring tension out of a situation of which we already know the outcome. Richard Phillips survived to write a book about his experiences, but, in the midst of the film, you do feel the dreadful danger he was in, and begin to suspect that he may not make it out alive. Films like Argo and Apollo 13 also had this power, albeit in a more comestible package.
The one shining moment of the film – and the reason Tom Hanks should have been nominated for an Academy Award for – was when the situation is resolved, and Phillips is allowed to finally let go of the tension he had been carrying for the bulk of the film. We see that he is not a steely man, but just a fellow who was able to keep it together in an extreme situation. When he finally breaks down into tears and panic, it’s one of the most heartrending movie moments of 2013.
Is a procedural approach to controversial material a cheat? Greengrass presents us controversial events with so little comment, that we begin to wonder where he stands. He begins to resemble a journalist more than a filmmaker. I would say that – now that we’ve seen his career at large – Greengrass is looking for the middle path in extreme situations. The immediate drama of a situation has no political affiliation. It just has the panic of the moment. And there is an integrity to that.
Paul Greengrass was not nominated for an Academy Award for directing, which, I think, means Captain Phillips has no chance to win Best Picture. This is not to say it’s bad. It’s really rather good. But this is clearly the consolation prize movie this year. Tom Hanks wasn’t even up for Best Actor. I wouldn’t put it on my own top-ten list. But it feels like the kind of film that should be up for an Oscar, y’know?
What the movie has going for it is its immediate dramatic oomph. The tension and the panic are very real. And it ultimately becomes a film about human desperation, in panic situations and vocationally.
Odds to win: 50:1