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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Captain Phillips

The best thing about Paul Greengrass’ new action thriller Captain Phillips is that it is actually about Captain Phillips. No, this is not a joke.

Phillips is an adept ship captain for the huge shipping conglomerate Maersk. He assumes his role aboard a freighter docked in Oman bound for Kenya, and this route is straight through the Gulf of Aden, past Somali, the most pirate infested piece of ocean in the world. I assume most viewers entering the theatre already know that this film is about pirates attacking a ship. The film does fulfill this expectation in the first act, but from there everything that happens is as unpredictable as is possible to be unpredictable.

First of all, kudos to the trailer’s producers and marketers for selling this film as a conflict totally based upon on the hijacking of a ship. While this is the first major conflict of the film, it is not the only one. As the ship’s hijacking unfolds, and errors occur, whole tangential series of events and complications are created. Greengrass takes these tangents to a place we never could have expected, and all of a sudden we have an unexpected thrilling crisis of a film.

Overall it’s a simple story, but it’s so creative in its originality and unfolding that I was on the edge of my seat the whole film. Since it’s based on a true story I guess Greengrass shouldn’t get all the credit. A lot of the credit must go to one the two scriptwriters, Richard Phillips. He adapted this script from the book that was based on true events.

Second of all, there is a storyline involving the Somali’s and the world they come from. It was a great idea to include this. We are shown that Somali pirates are not just pure evil, but are in many ways forced into the acts of piracy they undertake. In a extremely revealing scene Phillips and Muse, the head pirate, reveal how higher levels of bureaucracy influences both their lives, they both have bosses they say.

In a moment of cinematic excellence, Greengrass actually makes the viewer feel sympathy for Muse despite the fact that he is a maniacal, automatic weapon toting killer who hijacks ships. Sir Greengrass, very well done. 

There has been a concern over this film’s release though, and this raises the question that all art needs to consider: do the events of the film/artwork that declare themselves as true have an obligations to actually be true? Or can anyone declare anything and make into a work in itself?

This though comes from media attacks on the real Captain Phillips. According to The Guardian, apparently Captain Phillips himself was not the hero he is portrayed as in the film.  He was a notoriously difficult captain to work for, and by sailing too close to Somalia some say he was the cause of the whole incident. Debate aside, very good film.


Having transvered this section on ocean myself I feel a particular attraction to hijacking movies, and so I had to compare the Captain Phillips to Tobias Lindholm’s 2012 feature A Hijacking. Lindholm’s film was fantastic but in Lindholm’s take the onboard antics of the pirates are the focus. The Somalis were portrayed as plot devices. They reminded me of the riverboat’ crew à la Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; they were there to serve their purposes as savages, and that’s it. So Unlike Greengrass’ portrayal, in A Hijacking we hate the pirates.

No subtitles (expect Danish to English), no frills, no action sequences, no military, just pure, raw, compelling filmmaking, with the ship’s cook as the main character played brilliantly by Pilou Asbæk. I was worried that Greengrass saw the Lindholm film, which was an indie film on a tight budget, and decided remake it as blockbuster. I can say with complete confidence that these are two completely different films with only two real things in common, Somali pirates and ship hijackings.

A hijacking: Highly recommended!