I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who spent part of Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips thinking back to Airport ’77. That’s the one where the plane ends up underwater after a bungled hijacking, and the US Navy has to pull it up before the air runs out; put another way, it’s a first half of low-energy melodrama, and a second half of majestic hardware, and director Jerry Jameson seems much more engaged during the second half. Comparing Captain Phillips to such an old-timer concoction might seem like comparing an iPhone app to a kindergarten art project, but if the technology has changed, the barely-examined certainty of American supremacy hasn’t.
Captain Phillips does allow some cracks in that armour. In an early scene, Phillips has a conversation with his wife about how things used to be easier, and I imagine any NRA viewer of the film would see it as a prime negative argument for freer gun-toting: if Phillips and his crew had been better armed in the first place, he or she might say, then they’d never have been such relatively easy prey for four Somali hijackers in a flimsy boat, but with four awesome machine guns. But this only serves to emphasize American goodwill – for all its power and capacity, it’s a benevolent force, until that benevolence is abused. After that, the abusers can’t hope to run or hide.
The film is based on a real event (and so of course has attracted all the usual tedious complaints about factual inaccuracies), occurring in 2009. It’s an awesome creation; it’s been a long time since I spent so much of a film on the figurative edge of my seat. Greengrass is a master orchestrator of modern cinema – seemingly subject to no physical or technical constraints; as facile with the big stuff as a Ridley Scott, and as attuned to human intimacy as the documentarian he used to be. The film shows up some of the weaknesses I wrote about the other week in Gravity, reminding you how everything in cinema is a choice. Like Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron, Greengrass could have decorated his film with wise-cracking quasi-superheroes, fantasy conversations, and agonized back stories about past traumas, but he sticks to an appealingly no-crap approach.
His lead actor Tom Hanks is perfectly with the program, recovering immaculately from the rare misstep of Cloud Atlas. I admit I don’t tend to think of Hanks as one of the very greatest American actors, but then you look at a film like this and ask, well, who could have done any better? You might argue that Phillips’ character barely emerges, that the part increasingly becomes an exercise in pure suffering, but that seems to be the point, that such an extreme situation contorts even a capable professional into a twisted version of himself. Hanks’ virtuosic, moving final scene allows us to feel the full force of what’s the man been enduring, and again confirms Greengrass’ odd delicacy.
Back though to that overriding caveat. The film does spend a little time on the backstory of the Somalis – sketching the sense of an impoverished, warlord-ruled hellhole which may allow some young men just two effective options: piracy or death. But this counts for little in the overall fabric of the film. After Phillips leaves his home, he turns up in the port of Oman to take command, and the film provides awesome, Burtunsky-like shots of what seems like miles of storage containers and the attendant infrastructure. It’s a stunning encapsulation of the mechanics of globalization, distilled further in the shots of the ship – a crew of just twenty people to safeguard a rich concentration of commerce (and, we’re told, some food aid). When the crew first learns of the pirate threat, they react to it (in one of the film’s blackly wittier touches) as a violation of union rules. In conjunction with that opening exchange between Phillips and his wife, there’s something plainly out of whack in the negotiation of man and machine society.
Ultimately though, the film happily surrenders to one of the most pernicious symptoms of this imbalance. The aftermath of 9/11 made deliriously clear our demented official calculus of human value – it’s worth spending any amount of resources to fight the theoretical threat of lives being extinguished by terrorism or other high-profile intrusion, but not worth investing a fraction of that in addressing the real issues that limit and destroy people every day: poverty, hunger, lack of mobility and opportunity. Once Phillips becomes a hostage, in danger of being transported to the Somali mainland, he enters that privileged zone where no amount of money and resources is too great to ensure his safe return. No doubt in part it’s a reflection of political calculations outweighing the individual notional value of the individual at its centre. But the end result is always the same. The more time and money gets diverted into such escapades, the less there is for the grimmer stuff of life; daily interaction gets more threadbare and desperate, increasing the collective capitulation to vested interests, including the great wheels of international commerce, and so increasing the likelihood of desperate people resorting to desperate actions, which just keeps the whole thing going.
Looking at it that way, Hanks’ highly empathy-inducing final scene also soothes the way to settle in as suckers: when we see the humanity of this man so closely and fully, how can we doubt that all of this was justified, and will be justified again for future excellent military adventures? The implied alternative, that Phillips might have been sacrificed out of necessity, might seem horribly callous. But America tolerates millions of its people stuck in versions of living deaths every day. At the very least, I’d suggest, the film settles too easily for the attractions of the small story that lie within the bigger one.
It’s not the first time Greengrass’ work has prompted this kind of reaction. In 2006 he made United 93, a depiction of what may have happened on one of the 9/11 planes. At the time he called it a kind of Rorschach test, an inkblot, that you hold up and people project their hopes and fears and fantasies onto…(confirming) the reality of hard choices, the extraordinary human courage to face hard choices and how difficult hard choices are when there are no good outcomes.” But even that choice of words, and the very choice of material, confirmed the film as a tribute to American exceptionalism. Captain Phillips, similarly, avoids the dumb moves you’d see from lesser filmmakers, and might even seem moderately brave in that respect, but still, the big picture poses little challenge to the status quo.