A Tragedy at Sea
by J. Scott Southworth
Watch it… if you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to be captured and turned into an unwilling hostage in a situation torturously outside of your control, because Captain Phillips should give you a good approximation of what that might be like.
Avoid it… if you have no interest in subjecting yourself to long hours of boredom, erratic shouting and persistent shaky-cam just to prove some sort of point to yourself.
Captain Phillips is both a docudrama and a suspense thriller, and it showcases many of the worst aspects of both genres. It is bland and uninspired, and commits perhaps the worst sin that any thriller can commit: being boring. Its characters are blanks slates of physical appearances and informed characteristics. If anything outstanding can be said of it, it is that it takes the story of a horrific hijacking that becomes a horrific kidnapping and turns it into a truly horrific experience.
The film tells the story of the American freighter Maersk Alabama, which, while on a delivery run around the Horn of Africa, was beset by Somali pirates and its captain taken hostage. The film is “based on a true story,” which in film lingo tends to mean that it’s a liberal adaptation of something someone said might have happened once. This is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the film itself is interesting. Captain Phillips is, unfortunately, very thin in the “interesting elements” department.
The film’s narrative is told in precise, broad strokes – which is to say, events like the setting of traps and the like are observed in meticulous detail, while other aspects such as character, motivation and the like are either given quick and easy-to-understand excuses or left entirely up to the imagination. There is a sort of exposition in film and literature referred to as “informed characteristics.” These are elements, usually of character, that we’re told are true about someone but that are never supported or featured otherwise in the story.
Captain Phillips is full of informed characteristics. We know that he worries about the well-being of youth today because he tells us. We know that the hijackers see themselves as fishermen because they tell us. We know that Phillips’ crew is uncertain about the route because they tell us. But never do we see Phillips’ doubt about modern times represented in action. The doubts of Phillips’ crew never manifest as anything more than complaints. Nor, regrettably, do we get a deeper insight into what drove the hijackers to their change in career or how they might feel about it. The closest we are given to actual development is given in just the faintest suggestions of the performances, in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it changes of tone and manner. Here is yet another film this year where character development was apparently deemed unnecessary to the success of the film.
Of course, this sort of bare-bones narrative style might work well in a Die Hard film, where character and emotion are intended to take a back seat to nail-biting suspense and intense action. But Captain Phillips is not an action film, and its characters are not action heroes. Long stretches occur in which very little happens, and since none of the heroes or villains are particularly charismatic or likeable, very little reason is given to root either for or against them.
Tom Hanks stars as the titular captain, and this is one of the film’s few saving graces. Hanks is a skilled actor, and the brand-name appeal he brings will no doubt draw many curious viewers to the theaters during the film’s run. But his performance in Captain Phillips is not one of his better ones. I got the sense that the director was partially to blame. Many of the scenes with Hanks seem curiously overextended, as though the director was unwilling to yell “Cut!” until he had gotten every second of Hanks’ performance possible. Nor did Hanks seem particularly eager to move things along, either. This is Hanks at his most self-indulgent since Cast Away, and at least in that film he was only ever in danger of upstaging a volley ball.
The film is directed by Paul Greengrass, who became well known in Hollywood for his Bourne sequels (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum), as well as for his liberal use of shaky camera techniques. Shaky-cam (called queasy-cam by some for its sometimes nausea-inducing tendencies) can be used effectively, as it was to give a sense of frenetic disorientation during the action sequences of The Bourne Ultimatum. In Captain Phillips, these techniques are used constantly, even during quiet scenes of dialogue and on ships so large that the only obvious reason for using them (to give a sense for being “on the waves”) would be questionable – large ships such as the Maersk Alabama do not buck about like rowboats upon the water. Shaky-cam is a source of discomfort for many viewers that might easily have been foregone without any loss of quality in the filmmaking.
Aside from the camera techniques, however, it can be said that the majority of Captain Phillips is very well shot, particularly some later sequences featuring the U.S. Navy that play in part like an hour-long commercial for the American military. Despite the lack of subtlety in these sequences, there’s enough spectacular shots of naval and technological prowess to remind one that there exists, in the real world, machines nearly as immense and spectacular as anything in Pacific Rim.
For much of its running time, however, Captain Phillips remains an absolutely dismal experience, failing to provoke sufficiently either visually, emotionally, or philosophically. It is a bare narrative of events no one ever wants to experience, portrayed in such a way that you might feel like you experienced them, with all the confusion and tragic meaninglessness that such an event might inspire in the real world. Perhaps there is some argument for artistry in that element of it, but I don’t think so. George Sand once said, “Art for art’s sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for.” Captain Phillips may perhaps seek to be art, but it is very, very empty indeed.