The idea of a film based around September 11th seemed unfathomable in 2006. Was five years truly enough time between the attacks on the World Trade and the release of films depicting the tragedy brought forth on that day? I would imagine most people were perplexed, if not enraged, by filmmakers touching the landmark attack. How could anyone make a film about it when the wound was barely scabbed over? Yet, the question begs the answer: how soon is too soon? Honestly, with the right filmmaker in place, sooner is better than later. In the case of 9/11, writer/director Paul Greengrass, one of the more thoughtful filmmakers working today, demonstrated the power of filmmaking and documentation with United 93. Delicately constructed and practically told in real-time, United 93 is a film about the fateful flight that saw an ordinary group of citizens ensuring the safety of others at the cost of their own existence. Miraculously, Greengrass crafted a gut wrenching film that doesn’t hitch itself to grand statements of patriotism or an anti-Muslim angle. Instead, United 93 is a humanistic film told by a rational mind with a clear heart, dictating an abhorrent situation without exploiting it.
Greengrass’ ability to recount a real world tale shines through once again in Captain Phillips, a film tasked with telling the tale of a freight crew fending off four Somalian pirates, while their captain plays the role of a hostage on an escape boat. Our anxiety fueled journey begins with an introduction to captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), an everyday man facing everyday problems. Set to sail to Mombasa, the simplicity of his life vanishes in the haze of human desperation. As Phillips and his crew prepare for their maiden voyage, we’re introduced to Muse (Barkhad Abdi), an emaciated Somalian tasked with creating a crew that can out muscle and out maneuver a ship and its workforce. The significance of capturing a ship isn’t lost on us; it validates Muse as a leader who, in his own way, is a beacon of light in a helpless world. Muse and Captain Phillips, like star-crossed lovers who possess an unstoppable gravitational pull, drift towards one another, unknowing of the encounter they’ll share. Standard operating procedures and threats hold no weight against these buoyant leaders; survival takes precedence for both.
Even though the film’s centerpiece is the struggle between Muse and Captain Phillips, Greengrass immediately establishes what these two converging forces have to lose: their team. The varying team dynamics on display is an involving wrinkle within the film. Where most action films frame all the drama and explosions around a one man army, Greengrass establishes the notion that survival is contingent on people banding together, an ideal that’s tragically explored in United 93. Greengrass also recognizes the angst that bubbles within these two opposing forces, making scenes of collusion feel far more urgent and gratifying. This especially holds true for Captain Phillips and his crew, as his task master persona washes away in the name of safety. The same can’t be said for Muse, as he pushes his moral boundaries further and further, suffocating his decency with a gangster’s persona. If he fails, his men return home with nothing. Pride and effort aren’t commodities in their neighborhood. Unfortunately, the dissolution of his team’s bond takes a tragic shape. Using an ensemble composed of established character actors, if not complete relative unknowns, the impact of this true event never waivers to star wattage or gimmicks, but feels entirely grounded.
Greengrass’ seismic efforts, in both casting and direction, provide the perfect stage for the inevitable showdown between hostage and captor. Tom Hank’s performance as Captain Phillips is one of the year’s most impressive portrayals. Generally speaking, Hanks is a great actor ,but he hasn’t delivered a performance this masterful since Cast Away. There’s a steely resolve lining the skin of his character, as he provides an undeniable strength not through outbursts, but through quiet, meditative moments. The last five minutes of the film alone all but ensures an Oscar nomination for Hanks. Speaking of Oscar nominations, I’d be incredibly disappointed if Barkhad Abdi isn’t nominated as well. Not only does he hold his own against Hanks, but he takes a perceived villain and molds him into a human being reacting to a dangerous predicament. We don’t have to agree with Muse’s course of action, but Barkhad makes us at least understand his acts of desperation. And honestly, what makes a Paul Greengrass film great, outside of the rising action, is his ability to thoughtfully dissect an event. In the case of Captain Phillips, Greengrass portrays all of his characters as hostages seeking a reprieve from the gun pressed up against their head.